Spirit Lake’s Top Federal Official Retires Amid Leadership Shakeup
Spirit Lake Nation’s Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent has taken early retirement, less than two weeks after tribal elders voted to oust the governing council for this remote North Dakota reservation.
Roderick Cavanaugh has been one of the top officials at Spirit Lake for some years as the BIA’s on-site representative for the tribe. In this role, Cavanaugh had oversight of federal programs and acted as the liaison between the federal government and the Tribal Council. The BIA didn’t immediately comment on his departure, but Cavanaugh told a local news outlet, The Grand Forks Herald that the decision was “for personal reasons.”
In the past year, Spirit Lake’s leadership has been beset by allegations that it ignored or enabled problems with child abuse on the reservation. The BIA has known about the problems at Spirit Lake for at least two years, according to annual reports sent to Cavanaugh, but took no action until a whistleblower went public with concerns.
In April, Michael Tilus, a federal employee who worked as the director of behavioral health at the Spirit Lake Health Center, sent a letter raising concerns about abuse on the reservation, charging that child welfare officials had failed to properly investigate abuse allegations, allowed children to remain in unsafe homes, and in some cases removed them from qualified foster-care parents and returned them to abusive households, including ones with registered sex offenders. His report was leaked to the press.
In October, the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs stepped in to take over management of the tribe’s child welfare program. It installed new staff members and began to follow up on some abuse allegations.
Then last month, more than 30 tribal elders, angered by ongoing reports of child abuse and allegations of corruption, voted to remove the entire Tribal Council and demand new leadership. In Native American tradition, elders are deeply respected older members of the tribe who offer advice and insight. The elders said at a meeting that their complaints had been ignored by the council.
In the wake of the elders’ vote, some tribal members have drawn up a petition to recall the tribal chairman, Roger Yankton. They need 540 signatures to bring the question of his leadership to a vote before the general population, but are aiming for 600 just to be sure said one tribal elder. In addition, elections for council members from two of Spirit Lake’s four districts are coming up on May 7, allowing residents to choose at least two new members.
For years, tribal members had heard of the abuse allegations, but they told FRONTLINE that they had been reluctant to speak out because they were uncomfortable with discussing such sensitive issues publicly. Some also feared retaliation through physical attacks or the threat that they or their family members might be fired from coveted jobs on the reservation for criticizing the council leadership.
One tribal elder, Sister Joanne Streifel, said Thursday that such fear lingered. “The atmosphere is quite tense,” she said. “There is a fear that if (Yankton) survives the recall there will be retaliation.”
Yankton didn’t immediately respond to a voicemail message seeking a comment. In a letter sent last week to the tribe and obtained by FRONTLINE, the council said efforts to remove the chairman and council members “serve only to divert resources and focus from the critically important work and continues to divide the tribe further. … The Tribal Council takes seriously the public trust placed in them and will continue to strive to improve the status of the tribe as a whole.”