Crime is rampant. The cops and courts are a joke. That's why residents of Oklahoma's Indian nations turn to a bruiser-for-hire like Ruben.
It takes a while to noti« Ruben's scars. Though they're hardly subtle, they don't catch your eye as readily as his strong, smooth features or the big-ass smile that's totally disarming despite his size: six foot three, 225 pounds. Neck like a waist. Friendly as you please. When I pointed to each of the healed-up gashes on his fists and asked what they were from, he replied, "Teeth. Teeth. These are all from teeth." He charges $1,000 for every one that he knocks out of a person's head. It's the same price for each bone he breaks in a face, a practice that's cost him a couple of knuckles.
The first people who hired Ruben, five years ago, were a regular, law-abiding couple from the Cherokee Nation who had been robbed, their savings snatched from under the mattress. The couple knew who'd stolen from them, but they couldn't prove it, and they didn't have any faith that the cops would take action. Rüben was a young Pawnee who had always gotten in a lot of fights and always seemed to win. He didn't have anything against the guy; it was just a job, like his other odd jobs, roofing or thing or cement work. He waited for the guy to walk out of a bar one night and started hitting him. Two facial fractures: eye socket and cheekbone. Two thousand dollars. Ruben-who's asked me to use that name to protect his identity-says he can't count how many times he's played vigilante since then in the Indian nations of northeastern Oklahoma. Most often, it's about stolen property. Sometimes, it's about a raped sister or daughter.
"It's about justice," Rubén, 29, tells me when I say it doesn't make any sense for victims to scrape together a pile of beating-up money after getting their cash stolen. "People want people either beat up or locked up. And on a reservation, they're probably not gonna get anybody locked up."
Statistically speaking, he's probably right. The rate of violent crime among Native Americans is twice the national average; on some reservations, it's 20 times higher. At least one in three American Indian women will be raped in their lifetimes. Yet just 3,000 tribal and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officers-the only kinds of cops with jurisdiction on Indian land-patrol 56 million acres. In 2008, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas had nine officers for 9,000 people in an area twice the size of Delaware. (A typical town with the same population has three times that number.) Tribal courts can only prosecute misdemeanors such as petty theft and public intoxication. They can't issue sentences longer than one year without meeting special criteria, and even then, three years is the maximum. More serious crimes must be handled by federal prosecutors, who turn down 65 percent of the reservation cases referred to them.
Non-Indians commit two-thirds of violent crimes against Indians, including 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults. Yet thanks to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling, tribes can not prosecute outsiders who commit crimes on their land. (The case involved a white guy who'd assaulted a tribal police officer and anotherwho'd attempted ahighspeed getaway from reservation cops.)
"Going out there was like trying to do your job with one hand tied behind your back," says Damon Roughface, a former tribal police chief of White Eagle, in Oklahoma's Ponca trust land. "People don't care to report crime, because it's just blowin* wind. I'll have to admit that sometimes people think the code of the street works a lot better than the BIA." He points out that it's not uncommon in poor communities, Indian and non-Indian alike, for people to develop their own mechanisms of enforcement. "But on reservations," he says, "it's only compounded by the BIA'S history."
"Informal justice on reservations is motivated by the perception that they will not …