Open Wounds

The Case of Maddesyn George and the Legal Legacies of Colonialism

CW: Sexual Assault. If you’re unfamiliar with Maddesyn George’s story, we recommend The Inlander’s coverage from February, or this piece by The Intercept.

There’s a saying in the field of sexual assault recovery: Whatever you did to survive was the right thing.

Maddesyn George, a 27-year-old member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, did survive an alleged sexual assault while threatened with a gun in July 2020, then shot her assailant — 43-year-old Omak resident Kristopher “Buddy” Graber — with that same same gun the following day when he confronted her. 

But federal prosecutors didn’t tell Maddesyn she did the right thing. Instead, they sent her to Spokane County Jail and denied her bail. 

Because Maddesyn was addicted to meth — and Graber sold her drugs — the case challenges some people’s beliefs about who really has the right to defend themselves with force. She also stole drugs and cash from Graber after the alleged rape, which complicates things.

Sympathy is already scarce for most female assault survivors who fight back. Prosecutors often frame such women as manipulative and dishonest about the peril they faced. 

Journalist Justine van der Leun, host of the podcast Believe Her, says society loves “a true crime story when the woman is dead.” Van der Leun says, “Only in death can a woman secure her status as the perfect victim: No voice, no power, no pulse. Then she deserves our sympathy.” 

Maddesyn’s defense attorney, Steve Graham echoed that sentiment, telling The Intercept, “Self-defense is only for the NRA members who are in the rotary club with the police chief, not for a sex worker or homeless person or drug addict.”

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In Maddesyn’s case, the official skepticism began the moment she was arrested. She told authorities Graber had raped her, but authorities didn’t conduct a rape kit to corroborate or deny that allegation. Prosecutors then moved to disallow even mentioning self-defense to a jury. If the judge grants the motion, it will leave the defense no real defense. 

“The prosecutors’ strategy seems to be that Maddesyn made up the rape allegation,” Graham says,”[they] fought us tooth and nail on self-defense all along. We would have been able to explain that to a jury.” 

Motivated to reunite Maddesyn with her infant daughter, Shynne, as soon as possible, Maddesyn and Graham decided to take a plea deal — pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter and intent to traffic meth — and work for the lightest sentence possible, asking for five years. Prosecutors are fighting even that, asking for a 17-year sentence, well above the 9-to-11 year federal sentencing guidelines.

Graham thinks prosecutors often have “a rigid mentality” and don’t allow for gray areas or revisions to previous theories. He is hoping to reduce Maddesyn’s sentence through “victim provocation mitigation” — the idea that, if Maddesyn feared for her life, a lesser sentence is warranted in Graber’s death. It would have no bearing on the drug charge.  

“We’re gonna be real clear with the mistakes that Maddesyn made. And she definitely violated the law by being involved with drugs, and she owns that 100%,” Graham says, “But there are extenuating circumstances to why she shot that man. She may have been a little quick on the trigger, because she was still traumatized from having been raped the night before.”

One key aspect of Maddesyn’s case exposes legal pillars of colonialism that prevent Native victims of violent crimes — particularly sexual assault — from holding perpetrators accountable. That is: Maddesyn is Native, and Graber was white. 

As High Country News reports, “97 percent of crimes against Native victims are committed by non-Natives, and due to a complex web of federal laws and statutes, tribes have long been unable to prosecute non-Native perpetrators who commit their crimes on tribal land.” 

EWU Associate Professor and Spokane Tribal member Margo Hill, JD, MURP, says an 1885 law called The Major Crimes Act “requires all major crimes like Murder, Rape and Arson to be prosecuted by the federal government. In Indian Country that’s the U.S. Attorney’s Office.” Tribal courts are limited to prosecuting minor crimes. “It’s a paternalistic point of view that those Indians can’t handle prosecuting Major Crimes,” Hill says.

In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe further codified this policy by confirming that “Indian tribal courts have no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.” 

Federal U.S. Attorneys are unlikely to prosecute whites who commit Major Crimes against Natives, declining to take up about half of cases. It’s one frustrating reason why so many violent acts committed by non-Natives on reservations go ignored. 

If Graber would have shot Maddesyn first, in all likelihood, not much would have happened to him. Former prosecutor for the Colville Tribal Courts Jonnie Bray told The Inlander, "I've never seen the United States prosecute a non-Indian on behalf of the Colville Tribes. And I've been working in the court system for 26 years." 

Double standards like this aren’t accidental cracks in the criminal legal system. They are the structural racism engineered into the foundation itself, the outcomes of which Indigenous people have been suffering with for centuries. 

In a Journal of Hate Studies article published this month, Margo Hill describes early Native-settler interactions in the region:

“As more and more Euro-Americans settled in the Spokane area, negative relations accelerated.

Eventually, white settlers accused local Tribal people of stealing, and then killed them on the spot without trial. Yet, the accusations of white men raping Indian women or stealing from Indians were never investigated, let alone prosecuted.”

It might seem like a lot has changed in 150 years, but as recently as 2013, when the U.S. House approved the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013) — a bill that included new protections for Native American victims of domestic and dating violence — then-Representative Doc Hastings of Pasco voted no, commenting:

“To be blunt, the bill that passed today is simply unconstitutional. It violates Constitutional rights of individuals and would, for the first time ever, proclaim Indian tribes’ ‘inherent’ authority to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian citizens.” 

Since 96% of sexual assaults on Native women come at the hands of non-Native perpetrators, whether it was his intent or not, Hastings was voting to keep justice for Native people out of Native hands.

Though VAWA 2013 was enacted into law, repealing parts of Oliphant v. Suquamish, its tribal protections were inadequate: As High Country News explains, the bill “did not include child abuse, sex trafficking, rape or murder, and it excluded most of the tribes in Maine or Alaska.”

The 2021 version of the VAWA reauthorization includes stronger legal protections for Indigenous survivors and new protections for undocumented people. But while the U.S. House passed the bill in March, it remains stuck in the Senate. Due to partisan clashes, VAWA 2018 was never reauthorized.

So Indigenous women — and presumably non-binary, Two Spirit, and gender-diverse individuals, frequently misgendered or uncounted in data sets — face higher risks of violence compared to other ethnic groups in the U.S., yet are least likely to receive adequate protection under the law. 

The ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) in North America stems directly from centuries of outright genocide that white settlers perpetrated to try to make Native Americans disappear completely. 

The failure to even attempt to corroborate Maddesyn’s rape allegations against Graber traces a direct lineage to the way sexual assault and other violence was a method colonizers used to, in the words of Indigenous legal scholar Sarah Deer, “conquer and control Indigenous women and disconnect them from their land and bodies.” 

Even the Land Back movement isn’t just about physical land but, as writer Ruth Hopkins explains, Land Back “has become a symbol of the reclamation of everything that was taken and destroyed by the architects of colonialism.” 

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At an October 8th rally in support of Maddesyn, Yvonne Swan, member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, told a crowd outside the U.S. Courthouse in Spokane, “We Indigenous people have been on the defense ever since we were invaded by the Europeans who … set up a business here and called it a government.” 

Swan said, “They wanted to exterminate us, but we are still here.” She said Maddesyn had the right to defend herself, and believes Graber “would have killed her. And I am convinced he would have gotten away with it.”

Swan also mentioned the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century Vatican decree that “told the people of the world that we had no souls,” she said. U.S. courts applied this doctrine to justify land dispossession beginning in 1823. In a powerful reminder that dehumanization of Indigenous people isn’t just the province of conservatism, the doctrine was invoked by the Supreme Court as recently as 2005 — by Ruth Bader Ginsburg!   

DeAnn Alcantara Thompson, of the Seattle-based Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, invited rally participants to take a moment to breathe and connect to their personal “commitment to disrupt the ongoing patterns of colonization and violence.” Not just historical, ongoing.

For many, Maddesyn George’s story is not one isolated court case, but rather the ache of open wounds inflicted by land theft, genocide, misogyny, anti-Indigenous racism, and even forced separation of Native parents and their children. Maddesyn can only see her young daughter through the Spokane County Jail’s video chat system.

The trauma is many-layered. And the U.S. hasn’t seriously reckoned with its genocidal blueprint or rectified persistent anti-Indigenous policies with meaningful actions. Attorney Graham admits, “There’s limits to how much this can really be fixed within the criminal legal system. And that would just be the starting point.” 

Maddesyn awaits sentencing on Nov. 17th. 

edited by Luke Baumgarten