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Lawsuit: Renowned Native American woman 'dehumanized' when jail staff forced her to strip

Lissa Yellow Bird-Chase filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government after she was arrested during a traffic stop. A complaint alleged she was forced to remove her clothes in front of six BIA agents, including men, in an area where people could come and go.

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Lissa Yellow Bird-Chase gave up her career as a welder to search for missing and murdered Indigenous people across the country.
Natasha Rausch / The Forum
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FORT YATES, N.D. — A Native American woman known for finding missing people in North Dakota has accused a Standing Rock jail of dehumanizing her during a strip search after being pulled over for speeding.

The ACLU of North Dakota filed on Wednesday, Sept. 28, the lawsuit for Lissa Yellow Bird-Chase of White Shield, North Dakota, against the U.S government. It alleges Bureau of Indian Affairs officers assaulted, humiliated and dehumanized Yellow Bird-Chase when she was taken to the Standing Rock Detention Center in Fort Yates.

“BIA officers here have a troubling history of abuse of power and they need to be held accountable,” Yellow Bird-Chase said in a statement. “When women are at their most vulnerable, they are completely at the mercy of these officers – and I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this misuse of their authority. We must speak up. This must change. People need to know that this is not OK.”

According to the lawsuit:

Yellow Bird-Chase was driving on Feb. 2, 2021, a client she rescued from sex trafficking to a rehabilitation center when she was stopped in Corson County, South Dakota, for speeding. The county borders Sioux County in south-central North Dakota, where Fort Yates is located.

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The Corson County sheriff’s deputy initially told her she would get off with a warning, but the officer then asked to search her vehicle for drugs, to which she said no.

A drug-sniffing dog found used needles in the passenger’s jacket, as well as an empty baggie in the passenger’s shoe. Yellow Bird-Chase protested attempts to take the passenger to jail out of fear of retraumatization.

Yellow Bird-Chase admitted to having a “little baggie of marijuana” and a pipe she used for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. She was arrested, and booked into the Standing Rock jail around 2 a.m. Feb. 6, 2021.

Yellow Bird-Chase was told to strip in front of six BIA officers in an area where people were “coming and going,” including men, despite policy that says the search is supposed to be done in a private area by staff of the same gender as arrestees, the lawsuit alleged. When she refused, one officer grabbed her shirt in a “sexually aggressive manner and threatened that officers would remove Ms. Yellow Bird-Chase’s clothes if she did not do so herself,” the lawsuit’s complaint said.

“Ms. Yellow Bird-Chase felt violated and said something to the effect of ‘don’t touch me,’ but with the other officers present, she felt defeated,” the complaint said. “Having no viable alternative, Ms. Yellow Bird-Chase started to remove her clothes.”

The officers giggled and snickered as she undressed, the lawsuit alleged, which added she was moved to a private room after stripping to her underwear.

An officer allegedly told her during the search to get on her hands and knees and crawl away, the lawsuit said. Yellow Bird-Chase refused, the lawsuit said.

She was taken to a “drunk tank,” where she was held for 16 to 18 hours despite passing a breathalyzer test and offering to do further testing, according to the lawsuit.

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“No one in the drunk tank, including Ms. Yellow Bird-Chase, was provided food,” the complaint said. “This meant that Ms. Yellow Bird-Chase went approximately 16-18 hours with no food.”

She was moved to a jail cell with bunk beds the evening of Feb. 6, 2021, but was forced to sleep on the floor since she shared the cell with five other women, the complaint said.

Charges filed in connection to her arrest were dismissed two days later, when she was allowed to leave the jail. Officers did not return $850 of the $1,600 she had with her when she was booked into the jail, the lawsuit alleged.

“The emotional and physical distress they inflicted upon her is severe, traumatizing, and could only be born out of a fundamental disrespect for her humanity,” the lawsuit said in alleging Yellow Bird-Chase’s rights were violated. “This case seeks to hold the United States accountable and draw awareness to the danger Indigenous women like Ms. Yellow Bird-Chase face in their daily lives.”

Yellow Bird Chase is asking for at least $50,000 in damages.

In a news release, the ACLU called Yellow Bird-Chase’s treatment an example of racial profiling and abuse by law enforcement against Indigenous women.

“What happened to Lissa Yellow Bird-Chase is shameful and reprehensible,” ACLU of North Dakota Legal Director Stephanie Amiotte said in a statement. “Our government should not treat people this way.”

The Standing Rock Detention Center declined to comment on the case. A message left for the BIA media office was not immediately returned Wednesday.

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Yellow Bird-Chase is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in northwest North Dakota. In 2013, she founded the Sahnish Scouts, an organization dedicated to searching for missing people in North Dakota, particularly in the Bakken region.

One of her most notable cases was finding 32-year-old Olivia Lone Bear in 2018. After law enforcement gave up the search, Yellow Bird-Chase used a boat and sonar to locate Lone Bear’s vehicle, where the 32-year-old’s body was found.

Yellow Bird-Chase also aided in gaining a confession in the 2016 death of Carla Yellow Bird. Two men are serving prison sentences after admitting to killing Carla Yellow Bird.

Yellow Bird-Chase’s sleuthing has poked holes and drawn criticism in law enforcement’s efforts to find missing and murdered Indigenous women.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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