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A Fistful of Dollars

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.

He's determined to provide his kids with a better example than he had. "My dad used to make me and my brother fistfight, and hit us with a two-by-four if we didn't," Ruben tells me when he's more than a few cans deep. Caseworkers "would come to my house and ask me how's my home life, if everything's okay. But he's right there in the same room. And what if I say no, and they don't take me? So I said everything's fine, and I would just pray that they'd see it behind my eyes: Get. Me. Outta here."

We pull up to the house of two of Ruben's friends, where the guys show off the driveway they poured today and the cabinet renovation they've done in the kitchen. They all talk about Indian loan-guarantee programs, and, as is often a topic of conversation, the various benefits different tribes give out. Ruben's tribe, like most, isn't one of those wealthy ones with casino revenues to distribute in abundance or invest in tribal services. A quarter of American Indians live below the poverty level; Ruben is on food stamps. His casino royalty check last year was for $8. "I'd rather they send a midget to my house to knock on the door," he says, "and when I open it, have him punch me in the nuts and say, 'Thanks for bein' Pawnee.'"

His friends wince when we say we've been to White Eagle, where people keep telling Ruben he has no business taking a woman, much less a white woman. Where, Roughface told me, if a woman reports a rape to the BIA, "I guarantee you she'll be revictimized." Where the BIA recently shut down the entire tribal police department for incompetence. At four in the morning, a guy who's even bigger than Ruben, parts Choctaw and Cherokee but nearly as pale as a Swede, pulls me aside and confesses he broke someone's arm once. He's not proud of it, but he needed the money, and anyway it was too expensive to hire a lawyer and the cops weren't going to do anything about somebody not paying off a debt.

In July, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act (PDF) in the White House's East Room. Standing beside him were two Indian men in headdresses, and Lisa Marie Iyotte, a Lakota woman whose rape case the feds had decided, without even interviewing her, not to pursue. (She couldn't stop sobbing, even after Obama put his arm around her.) The act includes reforms like increasing tribal courts' sentencing authority to three years—if they provide public defenders and trained judges. It mandates that tribal officers be instructed how to interview sexual-assault victims and collect evidence. It requires the Department of Justice to keep track of any Indian cases it declines to prosecute, and to gather more statistics on crime on Indian land. Obama called it "an important step to help the federal government better address the unique public safety challenges that confront tribal communities."

Some Native American groups hailed the law, but not everyone is impressed. "The Indian communities have been longing for something for so long, they're just willing to grab whatever right now," says Virgil Wade, a criminal defender in Arizona's Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. "I don't know that it has the teeth that it's gonna need." Like, for example, the funds to pay for any of the proposed improvements—money the act doesn't guarantee. "Right now, with the economy, everybody's cutting back—tribes included." Nor does the measure "bother to address the real problem, which is jurisdiction over whites," says Syracuse's Garrow. Tatum says she can't be more than cautiously optimistic: "Endless bureaucracy and more data collection is a way of not dealing with a problem. And a lot of times, training gets mandated but never funded, and nothing happens with those mandates. It would not be uncommon to have requirements that just go by the wayside."

Ruben's also been thinking about reform. He talks about the importance of continuing the Indian way of life, and not just the way of the streets. "I know fighting isn't the right way," he tells me. He talks about his respect for one of his elder relatives, who showed him that not all Indians are drunks or fighters. But he's also told me that he'd probably do a severe beatdown for just $500, and only last week he whipped an elbow across the face of a 19-year-old who'd disrespected him.

On my last night with Ruben, we head for a hill in Ponca City. There he stoops into his "church," a cramped tent that serves as a sweat lodge, where he suffers hours of suffocating heat to give thanks for his people and his life, and to pray that he might do better in it.

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