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What Happens When Native Women Come Forward With Harassment Complaints

Constitutional reform and updated laws are needed to combat sexual harassment and assault in Indian Country.

Sarah Sunshine Manning filed a sexual harassment complaint. The process that followed was "emotionally, physically and spiritually draining."

Most women who contacted Indian Country Today in order to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault were too fearful of repercussions to come forward publicly; they asked for anonymity. In the interest of shining a light on what Amanda Takes War Bonnet describes as Indian Country’s “resounding silence” towards harassment within their communities, Indian Country Today has agreed not to disclose the identities of survivors or perpetrators. One woman, however, consented to come forward publicly. Naming herself and her perpetrator, she shares the long, anguished story of sexual harassment by her boss, her decision to report his actions, the tribal school board’s checkered response and their final come to Jesus moment in which they were forced to believe her and take action.

Her story offers a window into the confusing and inadequate reporting process as well as the dearth of the most basic procedural information for victims as well as the outright climate of subterfuge and denial in both tribal and federal governments.

Her name is Sarah Manning. This is her story.

Tiospa Zina Tribal School in Agency Village, South Dakota
Tiospa Zina Tribal School in Agency Village, South Dakota.

Manning began working in 2010 as a social sciences instructor at the Tiospa Zina tribal controlled Bureau of Indian Education school on the Sisseton Wahpeton Reservation in South Dakota. She is a member of the Shoshone Paiute Tribes of Nevada and Idaho. As one of only a handful of Native teachers among “TZ” school’s certified instructors, Manning taught classes in tribal government, American Indian history, sociology and psychology. Passionate about teaching from an Indigenous perspective, she advocated for greater inclusion of culture and language in classes and supported student efforts to challenge the use of Native mascots in neighboring school districts. She served on the School Improvement Team for three years, working closely with school superintendent Roger Bordeaux who was hired in 2015. Bordeaux of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe holds a Ph.D. and Master of Arts degree from the University of South Dakota in Education Administration and is a well-known figure in Indian education with a history of pushing for inclusion of Native language and culture in schools. He is also the director of the Commission for Oceti Sakowin Accreditation, an organization that provides Native-focused accreditation for tribal schools.

Manning worked closely with Bordeaux, meeting with him weekly as part of the School Improvement Team. Together they drafted a resolution urging schools to drop the use of Native mascots for the South Dakota High School Activities Association. The association adopted the resolution in 2016. Bordeaux praised Manning’s work and asked her to collaborate with him on other projects such as calling attention to Native needs on education bills before the state legislature.

“He made me feel valued and supported,” Manning said.

In her early 30s, she saw Bordeaux, who is over 60, as a fatherly figure.

“I thought wow, this leader sees the value in my work,” she said. “I was proud.”

Soon, however, Bordeaux’s texts and messages to his young protégée took a strange, uncomfortable and ambiguous turn, according to Manning.

“His compliments on my appearance and clothing grew more intimate and flirtatious; he kept asking me out for dinner.”

After praising her work, Bordeaux would follow up by messaging her, “You’re cute,” “Your beauty is radiant,” “You have a beautiful smile.”

Manning ignored the messages and changed the subject when he asked her out for dinner; she grew more uncomfortable with the relationship.

Bordeaux has denied in a phone call to Indian Country Today that he sexually harassed Manning.

During a trip to Atlanta for training according to Manning, Bordeaux made numerous sexually charged jokes in front of her and her female colleagues and suggested the trip as being a perfect opportunity for “a one-night stand.” She and the other women laughed uncomfortably she recalled.

At first, she questioned herself wondering if she was overreacting. “I thought maybe that’s just his way of joking,” Manning said.

A pattern soon emerged. “He would praise my work and offer me professional opportunities but follow up with these increasingly inappropriate messages and requests to meet for dinner,” she said.

When Indian Country Today asked Bordeaux during a telephone call about allegations against him of sexual harassment, he denied the allegations and said that his employment at Tiospa Zina school was terminated for reasons other than sexual harassment.

After the 2016 spring semester, Manning grew weary both of the confusing work relationship with Bordeaux and with the general climate at the school. She decided to pursue a graduate degree and turned in her resignation.

Silently, she agonized over her experience with Bordeaux. People asked why she’d resigned; after all, students had voted her Teacher of the Year just before she left.

Without naming names, she told a friend who still worked at Tiospa Zina that she’d been sexually harassed at the school.

“She immediately asked me, ‘Is it Roger?’” Manning said.

“She told me, you’re not the only one; there are lots of us who’ve been harassed by Roger,” Manning said.

Soon, Bordeaux began messaging her again offering opportunities to consult or coach the volleyball or basketball teams.

His messages grew more inappropriate, eventually asking her for a “one-night stand.”

Manning reached out to her friend and other women in the community and soon learned about several others targeted by Bordeaux; their experiences were often worse. They shared examples of him pressuring them more directly and insistently for sex.

“He targeted single Native moms for whom the loss of employment would be devastating,” she said.

She struggled over whether she should say something to school administrators about Bordeaux’s behavior.

“He’s such an important man; he’s done so much for Indian education. I thought, maybe I should just take one for the team,” Manning said.

For months, she said nothing to authorities.

“I consider myself to be an advocate for Native women. I thought, how can I keep silent knowing he’s preying on other women, many who have fewer resources than I,” she said.

Screengrab of phone messages

She blocked Bordeaux on all social media platforms. In the fall of 2016, Manning reported him to the school officials. She included copies of his texts and social media messages including his request for a one-night stand. Months of silence from the school followed.

She feared running into Bordeaux when she picked up her son at TZ school; she began to isolate herself.

“I continued to worry about the implications of reporting Roger. I felt silenced and powerless,” Manning said. It was demoralizing to think that Bordeaux had primarily been interested in pursuing a sexual relationship all along.

Wondering if she should file a complaint with the Bureau of Indian Education, she asked community members, including a tribal attorney, how to proceed but heard nothing.

Frustrated by the lack of response, Manning finally decided to take her complaint directly to the school board. She included copies of Bordeaux’s messages and emails in the detailed complaint.

She wrote, “There is no place for sexual harassment in any school, and definitely not at Tiospa Zina. No woman, no employee or parent should walk into Tiospa Zina and be objectified and solicited for sex by the man at the top of the hierarchy-a man who should be a role model in the community, a man who should know better.”

In response, according to their policy regarding sexual harassment complaints, the board placed Bordeaux on suspension from February 9-23 and scheduled an evidentiary hearing to explore Manning’s allegations.

At the February 23 hearing, Manning was shocked to learn that nearly half of her evidence hadn’t been shared with board members including the message in which Bordeaux asked her for a one-night stand.

She wasn’t allowed to add the omitted evidence.

The investigator hired by the board to examine the allegations claimed Manning hadn’t responded to requests for an interview. Manning tried to explain she hadn’t heard anything from the investigator. She later learned that the investigator had used an incorrect email address in trying to contact her and never tried to reach her via phone.

“Two women board members began badgering me. One said, ‘I am offended by you. That you think the women on this board don’t take this seriously, we take this very seriously.’ Another said, ‘You are at fault because you failed to follow the correct process,’” Manning said.

“The school attorney asked me if I felt comfortable going ahead with the hearing without an attorney representing me; I told him, ‘no,’ but they went ahead anyway,” Manning said.

Going into executive session later that night, the board decided unanimously to dismiss her complaint due to insufficient evidence; Bordeaux was reinstated.

The next day Manning received a letter from the board stating that their decision was final; the letter included a request for her signature. She declined to sign it.

Manning immediately drafted an appeal in which she detailed the “lopsided hearing process,” that failed to include all the evidence and left her out of the investigation process.

She sent the letter to both the school board as well as to then Sisseton Wahpeton Chairman Dave Flute. Flute urged school board members to reconsider all of the evidence.

“As chairman, it came to my attention that Manning wasn’t confident that the hearing procedure was conducted in a fair manner. I’m confident that the push my office gave to the board helped them reassess their response,” he said during an interview with Indian Country Today.

The school board scheduled another hearing on March 8, 2018 to discuss harassment allegations against Bordeaux. At school board chairman Tom Flute’s request, Manning resent a screenshot in which Bordeaux sexually propositioned her, asking for a one-night stand. Several women came forward during the hearing, including school employees, sharing instances in which Bordeaux had sexually harassed them.

The following letter was included as evidence. The author requested anonymity from Indian Country Today.

“I became aware of Roger’s sexual harassment when a group of us from school were in Vegas for a conference. My co-worker received text messages from Roger asking her to attend a show with him, she said yes, thinking he was just being nice and wanted someone to attend a show with him. Then Roger texted her, stating that he would pick her up early in a limo so they could have dinner, flowers, and he’d have champagne ready. My co-worker felt extremely uncomfortable and questioning her further, she told me that he had been sending her other text messages, which she showed me. She felt uncomfortable and didn’t know how to tell him no. Through encouragement she texted him that she had plans with her friends for the night. Throughout the next year he sent her texts of a sexual nature. Texts that asked for sex, suggesting a sexual relationship, sent random gifts to her, offering expensive trips, a picture of Candi’s Adult Store in Watertown, offering to pick her up some toys etc.

I learned that Roger had been doing this to other women and how persistent he was with my friend, constantly sending Facebook messages, gifts, and texts. These messages stopped after the school board started investigating.”

According to Tom Flute, the board agreed unanimously that night to terminate Bordeaux’s employment for sexual harassment.

Manning was out of town as part of her new job when a friend contacted her about the board’s decision.

Although pleased Bordeaux’s employment was terminated, she grew disgusted by the lack of follow up by the school or board. Why had no one contacted her about the final decision? Had the board reported Bordeaux’s termination and circumstances to the South Dakota Department of Education or to the Bureau of Indian Education, she wondered.

It was business as usual. No one wanted to investigate the larger climate of corruption that kept people like Bordeaux in power, according to Manning.

Doggedly, she followed up repeatedly with school board members and the school administration asking if they’d made reports to either agency. There was no response.

Bordeaux was later hired as Interim Superintendent at St. Francis Indian School, a tribally run BIE school on the Rosebud Reservation; in 2018 his name and position were listed on the school’s website. According to Manning, friends told her that Bordeaux was suing the school for $500,000 for wrongful termination of employment.

She also learned that although Bordeaux was suing the school and had been terminated for sexual harassment, school and tribal education officials continued to move forward with Commission for Oceti Sakowin Accreditation’s work to accredit the school. Bordeaux is the executive director of the accreditation commission.

Manning refused to ignore these developments. She continued to question school board members and administration via email.

In February 2019 she wrote to the school board, “Can you, now, a year later, please provide answers, in addition to a record of a final determination on Roger Bordeaux’s termination as it relates to my sexual harassment complaint? At this point, the school’s mishandling of my initial report, the mishandling of the investigation, and outright failure to respond to me is beyond justification.”

In April, however, things began to change.

Although Bordeaux was listed as interim superintendent on the St. Francis School website for several months after leaving Tiospa Zina, his name disappeared from the site sometime in April 2019.

Officials at St. Francis Indian School did not respond to email or phone calls from Indian Country Today regarding Bordeaux’s employment status.

In an April telephone interview with Indian Country Today, school board chairman Tom Flute confirmed that the school board reported Bordeaux’s termination for sexual harassment to both the Bureau of Indian Education as well as the South Dakota Department of Education.

Tom Flute said, “Bordeaux’s lawsuit against the school was dismissed in tribal court.”

“Sarah’s complaint against Roger snowballed as others came forward. It was good; we have zero tolerance for harassment of any kind at TZ,” Flute said.

Flute did not respond to further questions about when the board reported Bordeaux’s termination to the BIE.

Neither Tom Flute nor Sisseton Wahpeton Education Director Sherry Johnson would comment on the school accreditation process involving the Commission for Oceti Sakowin Accreditation.

During a telephone interview with Indian Country Today, Bordeaux stated he was unsure if Commission for Oceti Sakowin Accreditation was still involved in accrediting Tiospa Zina school. He referred further questions to his attorney Scott Swier; Swier did not respond to Indian Country Today’s emails or phone calls about Bordeaux’s employment history, status of any lawsuits against the school or tribe, or involvement with accrediting the school.

Manning describes her experience as emotionally, physically and spiritually draining. “The reporting process utterly impoverishes victims,” she said.

“In order to change and move forward, we have to interrogate the soil of why this happens in Indian Country, of why there is a climate of victim blaming and denial,” she said.

Employees at Federal and Tribal Schools Have Less Protection Than Those Working at Public Schools

The process for reporting sexual harassment at the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs is unclear and difficult to navigate. Employees at BIE schools can file harassment complaints within the schools’ administration as well as Equal Employment Opportunity complaints with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Civil Rights. Unlike most of the nation’s public schools, however, directly funded BIE schools are not subject to Title IX.

In 2017 a federal judge in Kansas found that BIE schools such as Haskell, are not subject to the U.S. Department of Education’s Title IX law because the federal government has sovereign immunity. Title IX is a federal law prohibiting educational institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex. This includes sexual harassment of either students or employees.

Despite recent sexual harassment scandals at both agencies, neither the BIA nor the BIE have made their harassment policies available to the public according to where journalists have reported extensively on this issue. In email responses to Indian Country Today questions about the sexual harassment reporting protocol and process for reporting employees guilty of harassment or assault or if there was any means to alert schools about these employees, Nedra Darling, director, public affairs for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs did not provide details. The assistant secretary oversees both the BIA and the BIE. The Department of the Interior is the umbrella agency for both agencies and has also faced several scandals over high rates of harassment and poor handling of complaints.

BIA Tops the List of Workplace Complaints at Interior; 40.20 Percent of Total Complaints

According to the Department of Interior’s 2017 Workplace Environment Report, 35 percent of employees reported being victims of some form of harassment that includes the following categories, race, religious beliefs, disability status, sexual harassment, sexual orientation, gender and sexual assault. The BIA topped the list representing 40.20 percent of total complaints. The Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians was second on the list at 38.40 percent.

Overall, eight percent of Department of Interior employees complained of sexual harassment. The Office of Special Trustee for American Indians had the highest rate, 11.40 percent, within the Department followed by the National Park Service at 10.40 percent and the Bureau of Indian Affairs at 10.10 percent.

According to GreenWire, only one-quarter of federal employees who claimed they were harassed reported the behavior; 38.7 percent of those who made official reports said they were encouraged to drop their complaints.

Nearly 60 percent of alleged harassers and perpetrators at the Department of Interior agencies were men.

According to the 2018 report by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Natural Resources, #InteriorToo, the Department of Interior harbors several known risk factors that predispose workplaces to complaints of sexual harassment such as a disproportionate number of men, power disparities between men and women and geographic isolation.

Recently the Office of Inspector General released a report finding that Haskell Indian Nations University, a BIE school, mishandled sexual harassment complaints and underreported crime statistics such as rates of sexual assault, violence, stalking and harassment.

According to the report, while at the college, Office of Inspector General investigators learned of allegations that a Haskell instructor sexually assaulted a student. Investigators reported the assault to police.

Investigators noted that most of Haskell’s misconduct investigative files contained little information regarding the complaint process or the investigative outcome.

The BIE oversees a total of 183 elementary, secondary, residential and peripheral dormitories across 23 states. 130 schools are tribally controlled; 53 schools are operated directly by the BIE which also oversees two post-secondary schools, Haskell Indian Nations University and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute or SIPI.

BIE employees who choose to take complaints beyond the school administration to the federal government must contact the Department of Interior’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights Programs within 45 days of the date of the incident.

Several sources told Indian Country Today that school administrators are frequently not helpful in helping victims navigate the federal reporting process.

“By the time most people figure out where and how to file a complaint with the feds, the 45 days have passed,” said a survivor who asked to remain anonymous.

Several employees at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, a BIE college in Albuquerque filed federal complaints in 2016 against the school’s vice president of college operations, Eric Christensen. They filed allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. The women spoke publicly about their experiences for an article by Government Executive Management. They complained of Christensen’s ongoing harassment that included making inappropriate sexual remarks, propositioning employees and students for sex and one incident of rape. The women have since accepted settlements with the Department of the Interior and signed non-disclosure agreements preventing them from speaking publicly about the case.

Although these settlements are paid using taxpayer dollars, the process is opaque. In 2018, Politico journalists requested information regarding the number of sexual harassment settlements and amount of money paid to settle claims against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Treasury Department and others. In response, agencies failed to provide clear details. Politico journalists have filed Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain more information.

In 2018, the Office of Inspector General released findings from an investigation of the allegations at SIPI; Christensen in not identified by name in the report but referred to as “the SIPI manager.”

Investigators found that although the SIPI manager had a sexual relationship with a student neither the school nor BIE have policies prohibiting such relationships and that he did not violate Department of Interior policy.

Investigators found that several employees described the managers behavior in the workplace as confrontational, abrasive and argumentative but investigators were unable to substantiate claims that the manager violated Department of Interior Policy. They did find, however, that the appraisal process at SIPI allowed managers to determine ratings-based cash awards for themselves. In an interview with Government Executive Management, Christensen denied any wrongdoing. He is still employed at SIPI.

Employees at tribally-controlled BIE schools have a more ambiguous route to pursue in reporting harassment to the federal government. In addition to filing complaints with schools or tribes, victims could presumably also file complaints with the Department of Interior’s Equal Employment Opportunities Commission or the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights Program as well the Department of Education under its Title IX law, but the line of reporting is unclear.

Although the BIE provides funding to tribally controlled schools and schools must abide by BIE regulations, individual tribes are responsible for administration and funding distribution as part of the Tribally Controlled Schools Act of 1988 passed by Congress to allow greater flexibility for tribes to create culturally relevant curricula. Historically, however, the BIE is chronically underfunded. According to the National Indian Education Association, bureaucratic BIE red tape impedes the ability of tribal schools to grow adequate infrastructure or maintain other resources.

For instance, according to a 2018 Office of Inspector General Report, the BIE is not ensuring tribally run schools conduct routine background checks on employees.

Under the current BIE model, tribes assume first responsibility for addressing claims of harassment. Unfortunately many tribes have little to no clear policies.

Janet Routzen, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and former executive director of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society helped the Rosebud tribal government create employee policies addressing sexual harassment in 2017. The White Buffalo Calf Women’s Society is a non- profit organization that provides services to victims of domestic violence, dating violence and stalking and also offers shelter to victims of violent crimes on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.

Although the tribe had an existing sexual harassment policy it was inadequate and lacked a clear line of authority or meaningful penalties according to Routzen, who is also a former prosecutor for the Rosebud tribe.

“We at White Buffalo Calf conducted training on sexual harassment for all tribal employees and explained the definition of sexual harassment and boundaries in the workplace,” she said.

“We explained that just because you may think you’re only joking, and others are laughing doesn’t mean your words or actions are appropriate. We can’t know how others will feel about any kind of sexually explicit comments or actions,” Routzen said.

“We got great feedback from employees. Many simply had no idea that their words or actions were inappropriate or even hurtful to others,” she added.

Routzen, who is currenting working with the tribe as a legal analyst and coordinator noted that many tribal constitutions are also inadequate and often fail to include clear laws regarding sexual assault and other crimes.

For instance until 2010, husbands couldn’t be charged with raping their wives under the old Rosebud tribal laws governing sexual violence.

Many tribes continue to govern using versions of the rudimentary constitutions originally created by the BIA during the 1930’s. Those governing documents often have no separation between judiciaries and elected leadership and fail to guarantee protections for many of the same civil rights included in the U.S. Constitution.

An advocate for Indigenous women, Sarah Deer agreed. “We have to remember that those constitutions were not created by Native peoples; they were boiler plate template versions of governing documents that the government insisted we adopt. They were created by white people without our best interests in mind.”

Many tribes are actively working to update their constitutions, but change is slow, complicated and expensive.

“Tribes need resources in order to invest in attorneys to craft good laws and policies and ensure that employees and human resources departments understand them,” Routzen said.

Victims fear they won’t be believed especially if perpetrators are in leadership or among leaders families, according to Routzen.

“Those old laws and constitutions have contributed to shaping the negative way our people and leaders respond to sexual violence and harassment. Those behaviors have become normalized,” she said.

The lack of separation of powers also sends a chilling message to victims’ services organizations that are funded through tribes.

“Tribal victims services organizations need to be independent agencies so that tribal leadership can’t pull funding,” Routzen said.

Constitutional reform and the creation of updated laws are essential in order to guarantee justice for victims of sexual harassment and assault in Indian Country, according to Routzen and Deer.

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