Video: Spirit Lake Woman Speaks Out About Tribal Corruption


The “star” (for lack of a better word) of a PBS documentary about abuse and corruption at the Spirit Lake Reservation, Robin Poor Bear (Charboneau), was on Chris Berg’s Valley News Live show last night talking about her experiences.

Here’s part one, you can view part 2 here.

Valley News Live – KVLY/KXJB – Fargo/Grand Forks

You can watch the first part of the PBS documentary online here, part 2 airs tonight.

The most interesting part of the interview, to me, was when Poor Bear talks about the lack of interest in speaking out and reform at the Spirit Lake reservation. Poor Bear clearly shares the frustration of Rep. Kevin Cramer who was derided in the media recently for an alleged “tirade” aimed at tribal officials over child abuse issues.

It’s been disappointing to me that so much of the coverage of the incident between Cramer and tribal activist Melissa Merrick, recounted by the latter on a left-wing website, has focused on Cramer’s demeanor rather than the larger context which is lax tribal protection for children and women.

Cramer expressed frustration about the Violence Against Women Act giving expanded jurisdiction for crimes of violence and abuse to tribes that already can’t handle the jurisdiction they already have. Setting aside how Rep. Cramer said it, shouldn’t that be something which frustrates all of us?

Meanwhile, in a Facebook posting forwarded to me by a Spirit Lake source, Melissa Merrick questions the validity of the PBS documentary starring Poor Bear.

The North Dakota media was quick to jump on Merrick’s claims condemning Rep. Cramer’s comments, but they’ve been less quick to point out that Merrick and others are working to resist bringing a spotlight to the corruption and abuse going on at Spirit Lake.

Melissa Merrick
Yesterday at 9:54pm ·

Kind Hearted Woman (KHW) airs on PBS next Monday, April 1, and Tuesday April 2nd. It is a five hour-long film presented in a two-part series. KHW is funded by the support of PBS and is part of a Frontline series.

KHW is intended to be a documentary, portraying the life of a Native woman who overcomes the challenges of alcohol addiction, child molestation, and domestic violence. Although the film shows the courage of Robin Charboneau in overcoming these challenges, it also unfortunately raises broader policy issues regarding the role of media that will challenge viewers. In particular, issues regarding the role of media in the lives of child victims of molestation and rape, identify disclosures in the film and promotional materials, and accuracy / objectivity considerations in reporting coverage of tribal communities, courts, etc.

In an effort to draw lessons and to use the PBS broadcast as a teachable moment, we encourage dialogue according to the following points:

1. Does Frontline, and in the broadest media context, have an ethical responsibility to engage tribal communities in the development process of such films? Should Frontline / PBS financially support such films that fail to engage the community and/or to utilize experts to guarantee accuracy? What would be your recommendation for community engagement before, during and after such a project?

2. Should Frontline / PBS have a funding and broadcasting film policy on case details and child victim identify disclosures? In KHW, three minors are used in the film. When filming began, the daughter was eleven and the son ten. A third victim, Robin’s foster daughter, is about twelve when Robin’s ex-husband rapes her. Frontline / PBS obtained legal consent, but is there an ethical line the film crosses that is not in the best interest of or promoting privacy for child victims? What would be your recommendation on a media policy regarding interviewing child victims of molestation and rape victims?

3. Does the USDOJ federal prosecutor have an ethical duty to refrain from discussing on camera the case details involving child victims of molestation and rape? In the film, the prosecuting attorney discloses intimate victimization details of the girls while the camera shows video footage of each girl in front of the courthouse before and during the criminal trial. What policy would you recommend to the USDOJ in responding to media inquiries from entities such as Frontline / PBS? When, if ever, should such details concerning cases of minors or adults be used in such films / the media?

4. What policies should Frontline / PBS adopt regarding the funding and broadcast of films to promote accuracy and prevent the denigration of tribal communities? The film sends a clear message that the tribal court is incapable of rendering a just decision in Robin’s case by the attorney statement at the end of the film: “I can’t guarantee you anything in tribal court because the judges on the Spirit Lake are appointed by the tribe, are not elected and are not law trained.” A couple days ago, David Sutherland, Film Director, stated on Native American Calling, “the problem is that the only requirements to be a judge is that you must be 25 years old and not have a criminal conviction.” A basic inquiry would reveal that states also do not require judges to be law trained; in NY most state judges are not law trained. Other inaccurate statements are made such as educational walks cannot happen at Spirit Lake because abuse is not talked about. What policies would protect against this inaccuracy and other inaccuracies in the film?

5. Funding for KHW is provided through the support of PBS viewers, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and The LEF Foundation. Given a portion of the funds are federal funds, should usage be mandated by guidelines developed in coordination with the communities impacted by the broadcast?
— via Lucy Simpson