GettyImages-627464854.jpg

by Angelina Newsom

In the United States, there’s a popular misconception that Native Americans receive healthcare from the federal government at no cost. Although Indian Health Services doesn’t exact a monetary charge on patients, for me and so many other children residing on Indian reservations, trips to the clinic came at a high personal cost: sexual abuse at the hands of a white male doctor, an all too common betrayal made possible when outsiders enter tribal lands and discover how vulnerable Native children are. Until recently, there’s been no recourse for victims of powerful white men working on reservations. But changes to the statutes of limitations for sexual abuse in many states have made it possible for abusers to be called to account decades after their crimes, some of which stretch all the way back to the 1970s.

In the 90s, many doctors on my reservation, the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Lame Deer, Montana, were white men. Employed by the U.S. federal government within the Indian Health Services system, some moved on after completing their residency and adding a resume line about “saving Indian children.” Others made their careers within IHS, working on reservations for years at a time. One such doctor was the monster I would encounter when I received a sports physical at just 10 years old. After he took my vitals, the old man put his ungloved hand down my underwear and instructed me to turn my head and cough. With mounting confusion, I complied until it occurred to me: this isn’t how girls receive sports physicals. But, I thought, maybe I was mistaken. I definitely remembered my male classmates teasing each other about having to cough during their sports physicals.

I’d eventually learn that doctors perform this exam on testicles to detect hernias, but at 10 years old, I had neither the knowledge nor the power to dispute being examined in such a manner. I wasn’t given the option to have a chaperone present, nor did the abuser explain the procedure or why it was medically necessary. He was a prominent authority figure and medical care provider in my community, so there was no room to question his word. I was pretty sure it wasn’t standard practice for a male doctor to put his hand down my underwear without gloves, but I reconciled being sexually abused by thinking maybe it’s just something other girls didn’t talk about. “This ensures I’m eligible to participate in cross country running, right?” At the time, feeling embarrassed and ashamed, I didn’t tell a soul.  

While I didn’t know it then, it has since come to light that I wasn’t alone. Around the same time that an IHS doctor abused me on my own reservation, now-convicted pedophile and former IHS doctor Stanley Patrick Weber was also operating with impunity on the Blackfoot reservation in Browning, Montana. His high-profile case has exposed federal complicity in the sexual abuse of Native American children. After Weber came under fire for allegations of sexual abuse at the IHS facility in Browning, he was transferred to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1995. For years, he preyed on young Native boys. He wielded an incredible amount of power over his young victims, who were already part of a demographic vulnerable to sexual abuse. He hosted them in his home and received them at work, where colleagues say he often gave money to the young boys who stopped by. His conduct became an open secret within the community, and both community members and Weber’s own colleagues raised concerns. Despite being reported to IHS supervisors by colleagues and community members several times, Weber remained with the IHS, victimizing Native American children for two decades.

Recently, however, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed HB 0640, a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Shane Morigeau, that eliminates the statute of limitations on prosecuting sex offenses against children. Legislation was drafted following cases in Montana that frustrated prosecutors because the statute of limitations expired. Other states have passed similar laws, giving former child victims recourse to take action against their abusers. California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a similar bill, giving victims of child sex abuse more time to take action against abusers. Critics of this legislation argue that it creates an industry for ambulance chasing attorneys and that the lack of evidence puts abusers at a disadvantage. Of course, any defense sexual abusers can put forward pales in comparison to what their victims have suffered.

Last year, Weber was convicted of abusing two boys at the Browning, Montana Indian Health Service facility where he was employed for three years. He was sentenced to 18 years and four months in prison, a sentence he subsequently appealed. In September, he was also convicted of eight counts of sexual abuse that occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota between 1999 and 2011. He awaits sentencing for those crimes, which carry a maximum penalty of life in prison.  

Since Weber’s first conviction, the White House has organized a task force to find ways to protect Native American children. According to the readout of their second meeting, the task force spoke with tribal leaders to discuss protocols. It’s expected they will make the rounds across Indian Country to mull over how not to ignore reports of child sex abuse.

Unlike Weber, my abuser continues to enjoy his status as a retired doctor and respectable figure. Having treated generations of my people, he maintains good standing within my community despite the lifelong distrust of male care providers his betrayal created for me. Now that legislators have updated draconian statutes of limitations, I’m among the survivors who have found their voice in adulthood. After decades of silence, I count myself among those not interested in preserving a “good man’s name” or harboring anger.  Either way, I plan on fully holding my abuser to account in due course. Healing can begin once I’ve spoken up.

The Indian Health Service clinic on my reservation burned down in 1996, taking with it physical reminders of what occurred inside the building when I was a child. The facility was eventually rebuilt in another location to include a larger parking lot and modern upgrades. It’s my hope that the modernization of IHS will also bring with it a newfound resolve to protect the most vulnerable among us and deliver justice for every Native child who fell victim to outsiders entrusted with our lives.  

Angelina Newsom

Angelina Newsom is a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe currently writing about politics, Indigenous issues, culture, and women’s rights for various outlets while navigating life in Europe.