The Strange, Beautiful Land of North Dakota -- and the Unsolved Murders of Natives

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at
Thu Dec 27 09:35:03 MST 2001

I'm posting this  very widely.  Concern is now growing quite rapidly about
the failure of law enforcement authorities to make any arrests in the last
September murders of three Native men at Grand Forks, ND -- and various
attendant issues relating to general racism. I've been posting on these
tragedies and their setting since early October. This concern is now being
reflected consistently in local and regional media to this very moment.
First, a little about the strange, beautiful state -- which our family knows
very well indeed:

It's the least urbanized of any of the states and has a population which has
to reach to even get much beyond 600,000.  Farming and ranching continue to
make up the major economic foundation -- but there is some industry and
related commerce in the several very small cities: Fargo, Grand Forks,
Bismarck, Minot.  Four large Indian reservations are contained within North
Dakota -- and there are several on the  borders [Montana, South Dakota,
Minnesota, Manitoba. ] The Northern Plains has its own great beauty -- the
Badlands and environs are truly spectacular.  But winters are very long and
cold in North Dakota: heavy snows, generally in blizzard mode; temperatures
that can drop to a flat 35 and 40 below with wind-chills that go to 100
below; major disasters -- floods, tornadoes.

The state also has its share of racism and cultural ethnocentrism and
related "isms."  [Leonard Peltier's home town is Grand Forks.  His framed-up
Federal conviction occurred at Fargo, ND.]

In the old days, there were strong  Left radical traditions:  Socialist
Party, I.W.W., Non-Partisan League.  Now, especially in the tragic context
of over 10,000 ranchers and farmers who have lost their land in the last
generation, and a myriad of small and dying towns,  economic vicissitudes
and frustration are manifested generally by out-migration -- and
sometimes in virulent right-wing "populism" with racist connotations.

There are interesting, intriguing twists.  An effort a few years ago by some
Democrats to reinstitute the death penalty in ND was quickly defeated by a
prominent  [moderate] Republican leader.

Our family knows North Dakota very well indeed.  My Anglo Mother's [herself
born at Everett, Washington]  people were among the earliest non-Indians
into Kansas Territory, Dakota Territory [statehood for both Dakotas came in
1889], and Indian Territory [Oklahoma.]   My mother's Scottish grandfather
came into Dakota Territory [now the ND portion] in 1870 and, through force
and violence against other Anglos, established a very large ranch on which
he raised horses. [He got along well with the Indians. He also wore
consistently a black Stetson.]  North Dakota abounds with relatives of
mine -- the town of Hunter is named for the family.  My wife's [Eldri]
Saami/Finnish family -- with a Norwegian component --  also came early and
was based both in northern North Dakota and later in  Minnesota.  Her
father, who died several years ago at 95, was the oldest [and very liberal]
Lutheran clergyman in North Dakota. Until his recent retirement, Eldri's
brother was chair of philosophy at Moorhead State University, on the border
near Fargo.  My youngest son, Peter, hired by the state-wide Bismarck ND
Tribune as soon as he graduated from UND Journalism in 1992, quickly became
its State Editor [and is now City Ed of a very large sister newspaper in the
same chain in another state.]  His wife is from the region.  My oldest son,
John, lives in the area.  A well-published writer, he was recently awarded a
highly prestigious McKnight Writer's Fellowship and has a book coming out
via a Southern press in a few weeks. Both sons -- and a large number of
other people [former students, Indians, non-Indians] keep us closely posted
on what's going on in North Dakota.  One of those is Ms Lisa Carney, a
former student and  on-going Teamster activist -- and a  consistently sparky
discussant on our RedBadBear discussion list.

I, myself, taught in Indian Studies [and Honors] at the University of North
Dakota for thirteen years [full professor and chair in Indian Studies],  and
was a member of its graduate faculty.  As always, I was deeply and
consistently involved in Indian rights, labor unionization, and civil rights
and civil liberties --  an on-going fight within the University and in the
vast region beyond.  This is why, when I took early retirement from UND, I
was not awarded the title of "professor emeritus" -- and this symbolic
omission is right now a burning and open issue within and around the
University.  Anyone interested in this can check out this updated section of
my large social justice website [  ]   and the specific

As I've noted in earlier posts, the general situation at Grand Forks, ND has
badly deteriorated socially -- and this very much involves the general realm
of human relations.  The  unsolved murders of the three Native men at the
Forks in September, 2001, are now of great concern.  When no arrests were
made, I wrote to the daily newspaper, The Grand Forks Herald, in early
October -- and the paper [not always a friend of mine] did, to its great
credit, publish my letter as a major editorial on October 12.

Very recently, I wrote this up-dated summation of the murders of the three
Native men and the general background.  It's due to be published soon in an
excellent anti-racist publication.  Now, with the issue of the unsolved
Native murders becoming more and more a matter of regional [and, in some
quarters, national concern], I print it here.  Please note that, among other
fronts, we are continuing our efforts to solicit brief and polite e-mail
communications to the North Dakota governor urging him to utilize his state
offices in the situation and take quick and vigorous law enforcement
 arrest -- and preventative -- action.  His addresses are given at the
conclusion of my following short article:


By Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]    [Micmac / St. Francis Abenaki / St. Regis

Three Native American men  were murdered in early September, 2001,  at and
around the small city  of Grand Forks, North Dakota [about 50,000.]  No
arrests have yet been made.  There is increasingly widespread
concern that the official investigations are being pursued neither
effectively nor vigorously.

On September 7, the bodies of Robert Belgarde  [40] and his son Damian [19]
were found shot to death six miles south of Grand Forks.  This falls into
the jurisdiction of the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department.    The body
of the third victim, Jerome Decoteau [50], was found with evidence of
profound and deliberate physical injuries at his apartment in Grand Forks on
September 24.  But he had been dead for as much as two weeks -- and  it is
felt he may have been killed as early as September 8, the point when a
neighbor began noticing daily newspapers piling up.  [I personally knew and
appreciated Mr. Decoteau.]  This falls within the jurisdiction of the Grand
Forks City Police Department.

All of the victims were members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa -- a
tribal nation located in northern North Dakota.

It is  possible that all of the murders, given the date of the Belgarde
deaths and the probable date of Mr. Decoteau's death, are related. There
have been other relatively recent multiple murders -- unsolved -- of Native
men in the general Northern Plains region. Whether these Grand
Forks/environs killings are related to those is, at this point,

What isn't speculative is that three Native men have been murdered and the
killers are still at large.

This situation has occurred in the general context of significantly
deteriorating lawmen/ minority community relations.

When the Belgarde bodies were found, an official from the Sheriff's
Department made publicly disparaging remarks about the two men.

The general atmosphere in the region -- and certainly at Grand Forks -- has
always been plagued with racism and  cultural ethnocentrism.  A number of
Indian reservations are close at hand and much of this has been directed
against Native Americans.

In 1983, while an Indian Studies professor at University of North Dakota
[UND is located within Grand Forks], I took the lead in an intensive
campaign which subsequently ousted a very poor police chief and installed a
person quite sensitive to the full range of human rights and human relations
concerns.   As a result of all of this, and the accompanying reforms,
police/community relations improved very substantially on all fronts -- and
certainly very much so with respect to Native Americans.  I, myself, served
for many years as Chair of the Grand Forks Mayor's Committee on Police
Policy -- and I also served as Chair of the Grand Forks City Community
Relations Committee.

All of this also had a positive impact on the Grand Forks County Sheriff's

I continued my active involvement in the Grand Forks police and general
human relations situation past my retirement from UND in 1994 and to the
very moment we moved  back to my native Mountain West in July 1997.

Not much later, the good police chief retired.  And then things, with
respect to the general law enforcement/community relations situation in and
around Grand Forks, began to go rapidly downhill.  And down -- 'way down --
is where things are now at.  The deterioration in this very sensitive and
critical realm has been extremely substantial.

Although in Idaho, I continue to be much involved in various North Dakota
matters.  When several weeks  passed with no arrests in the Native murders,
I wrote a long letter to the local daily newspaper, The Grand Forks Herald.
After discussing the murders and the lack of effective official action, I
delineated our successful campaign of years before to substantially reform
the police department, and I covered the massive setbacks that have recently
occurred.  In conclusion, my editorial called for a swift return to positive
law enforcement/community relations, and I said:

"And it's time to apprehend these killers of Native people and to vigorously
endeavor, with every ethical resource, to prevent these tragedies from
happening again -- to any people."

The Herald asked the police several times to send a statement giving their
side.  The police declined to do so.

The Herald then ran my full letter as a major, formal editorial on October
12.  It received, from the community and well beyond, much favorable

For our part, we moved to activate, locally and regionally,  a wide range of
positive individuals and systems.  When, two weeks or so after my editorial,
a UND student of Arab ethnicity was brutally assaulted, Grand Forks police
made an immediate arrest.  A long-standing campaign to secure a state-level
human rights agency has been rejuvenated.

But there have been no arrests in the murders of the three Native men.

DSA Anti-Racism Commission passed a very strong resolution in late October
calling for swift action in the Grand Forks situation,  It has been widely
disseminated.  In November, we began a campaign which has successfully
generated a  large number of e-mail communications to the North Dakota
governor -- asking that he use his good  state offices immediately to ensure
a thorough, effective investigation and the swift arrest of the killers.

In mid-December, the police -- in a statement notable for its emptiness --
said only that they didn't feel the  Decoteau murder was connected to the
Belgarde killings.  They offered nothing whatsoever to substantiate that
conclusion -- which many of us do not at this point share.

It is now Christmas season,  2001.  Heavy snow and bitterly cold weather
have come to the Northern Plains.  Jerome Decoteau, Robert Belgarde, and
Damian Belgarde are almost four months dead.  No killers have been
apprehended.  Many other Native people are at risk.

We need  solid and effective arrest -- and preventative --
action on the law enforcement front.  Concerned people should contact the
Governor of North Dakota and ask for such fast and effective action.

Honorable John Hoeven
State of North Dakota       Governor at
State Capitol
Bismarck, North Dakota 58505

We very much appreciate your support.

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
 hunterbadbear at

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear] (social justice)

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