our Native American men – all members of the North Dakota-based Turtle Mountain Chippewa [Ojibway] Nation – have been murdered in and around Grand Forks, N.D., within the last year and a half. There have been no arrests. The efforts by various North Dakota law enforcement and other officials in these tragedies have been notably laconic, confused, and omissive.

In Sept. 2001, three Turtle Mountain men were murdered at virtually the same time in the Grand Forks setting – a town of 50,000 on the Minnesota border. (It’s the hometown of Leonard Peltier.) Robert Belgarde, 40, and Damian Belgarde, 19, father and son, were shot and killed near the town. Within the Forks itself, Jerome Decoteau, 50, who I knew personally, was bludgeoned to death in his apartment.

In mid-July, 2002, a Turtle Mountain youth, Russell Turcotte, 19, was hitch-hiking through Grand Forks at night to his home in Wolf Point, Mont. Last seen at a gas station on Highway 2 at the western edge of the Forks, he was reported missing a day or two thereafter. His partially nude body was eventually found in early November, just off Highway 2, near Devils Lake, N.D. – a town about 90 miles west of Grand Forks.

The response to the Belgarde murders by the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s office was to claim at several points that they were drug-related in some fashion – and hence of presumably minimal concern to the general run of citizenry. (These claims have now stopped, at least publicly.) There have been leaked hints for months that arrests in this matter are forthcoming. No action.

Virtually nothing has been said by the Grand Forks Police Department in the killing of Jerome Decoteau. A few months ago, a leaked hint spoke of forthcoming arrests. No action.

In mid-October, 2001, I wrote an angry statement about the Belgarde and Decoteau murders, the growing deterioration and mounting lack of sensitivity within the GF Police Department, and the general breakdown in race relations occurring in and around the town itself. The local newspaper, The Grand Forks Herald, ran this as an editorial and asked the police chief to give his response. He refused to do so.

For months after Russell Turcotte’s ominous disappearance at Grand Forks in July 2002, North Dakota lawmen in the region took the very strange position that it was officially a matter relating to his then residence, Wolf Point, in eastern Montana, and did nothing. When, early on, a convenience store manager told Forks police that he had a routine surveillance video that showed Russell Turcotte and other customers of that evening, the police indicated they had no interest in it – and the tape was eventually destroyed in the store’s conventional recycling process.

Over many years and after many tough campaigns, we gained much ground in Grand Forks and North Dakota on a wide variety of social justice endeavors – including anti-racism. But it’s obvious that much is now going downhill very fast. While never any bed of roses by any means, things are a far cry into the negative side from where they were when I came to North Dakota in 1981.

The Belgarde and Decoteau killings have strong racist dimensions. Organized hate groups, like spin-offs from the old Posse Comitatus, are found throughout this general region. In addition, the setting is rife with plenty of “independent” racism. The mounting economic vicissitudes in North Dakota and adjoining sections – e.g., unemployment and the collapse of many small farmers and ranchers – have deeply fueled these poisonous rivers.

The victims’ family members, myself and a number of Native and non-Native people in the area are vigorously planning appropriately creative approaches designed to keep the fires burning on all of these tragic issues – and to increase the degree and scope of the constructive heat. Your help is much needed. We ask for e-mails. Please contact these two State of North Dakota officials and ask them to lend every resource at their command to push the murder investigations of the four Turtle Mountain men and secure arrests. In addition to the need for justice, there must be no more of these murders.

Honorable John Hoeven, governor, governor@state.nd.us; Honorable Wayne Stenehjem, attorney general, ndag@state.nd.us.

Hunter Gray is a long-time Native activist and social justice organizer who now lives in Idaho. Originally from Northern Arizona, Gray lived and taught in Grand Forks. He was head of the Grand Forks Mayor’s Committee on Police Policy for years and was chair of the city’s Community Relations Committee. For more information see www.hunterbear.org

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