On May 19, 2009, the United States District Court in Fargo, North Dakota, convicted Anthony Charboneau III on two separate charges of abusive sexual contact and sexual abuse of a minor. Charboneau, a Chippewa who lived on the Spirit Lake Nation Tribe Reservation in Fort Totten, North Dakota when the crimes were perpetrated, received a prison sentence of nearly four years.
The allegations were first brought to the attention of Spirit Lake's Tribal Social Services by Charboneau's ex-wife, Robin Charboneau, who maintains that her suspicions were dismissed by a Tribal Social Services case worker with a conflict of interest. Robin had also reluctantly ceded custody of her two children, Darian and Anthony, to her ex-husband following what she had characterized as prejudicial hearings at the Spirit Lake's Tribal Court. Presented with no avenue for justice, Robin turned to federal prosecutor Gary Delorme, who circumvented the Tribal Court and brought federal charges against Mr. Charboneau, successfully convicting him on the two separate counts of child sexual abuse.
This past January, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an appeal that was filed on Mr. Charboneau's behalf, and in turn affirmed his convictions. In that appeal, his legal staff makes the argument that his ex-wife had "hidden agendas" in pursuing the case against him-namely, her participation in "a documentary film on rape and child abuse on the Indian reservations."
The documentary film in question is director David Sutherland's Kind Hearted Woman, a co-production of Independent Lens and Frontline that is airing April 1 and 2 on PBS. Sutherland is primarily known for his empathetic, long-form documentary projects about the rural American experience, such as The Farmer's Wife, a sweeping, six-and-a-half-hour "portrait" of farming life in Nebraska that captured the attention of an estimated 14 million viewers upon its initial airing in 1998. Sutherland's subsequent film from 2006, Country Boys, took viewers to the heart of Appalachian Kentucky to follow two teenage boys over several years as they negotiate the challenges of growing up in that region.
Immediately following the success of The Farmer's Wife, Sutherland had an interest in finding a suitable subject for his next documentary project in the hinterlands of North Dakota. "I wanted to go to North Dakota because there were so many farm failures in the late '90s," the filmmaker explains. Although Sutherland would instead travel to Appalachia and tackle themes of rural poverty with Country Boys, he remained keen on the idea of using North Dakota as a setting for a future documentary.
Although Sutherland was initially hesitant about centering his next project upon the modern Native American experience, he was shocked to discover how Native residents of North Dakota were disproportionally affected by violent crime and sexual assault. "I knew in North Dakota that the rate of rape and sexual assault among Native women was three and a half times higher than any other race of people," he points out. While hosting screenings of The Farmer's Wife at rural outreach centers for battered and abused women, Sutherland began to consider the dearth of honest and positive portrayals of Native Americans in the mass media. "I said to myself, ‘Does anyone know a Native woman or a Native family that they root for?' I know Independent Lens has done a lot of shows on all different groups of people from different walks of life, but I said, ‘Maybe I could put a face on a Native family.' I started to be introduced to a lot of Native women in battered women's shelters in North Dakota."
While reflecting on his first interactions with Robin Charboneau, Sutherland recalls having some qualms about casting her as the "protagonist" of what would later become Kind Hearted Woman. "When I met Robin, I was afraid of her because I was one of the first people that she had ever told her story to," Sutherland admits. "I thought she was too passive of a character! I didn't think she could effectuate change. But from the first day of filming, the change had started, but it wasn't because of me. I was wrong. I know I'm wrong 50 percent of the time. So the big question for me is, ‘Are you going to like her? Is she likeable?' She has a great sense of humor about herself when she's depressed. I liked her."
Culled from nearly five years of principal photography and condensed into a nearly five-hour odyssey, Kind Hearted Woman first introduces us to Robin as she traverses the Spirit Lake Nation Tribe Reservation in the forbidding winter cold. As is the custom with Sutherland's documentaries, his extensive use of radio microphones immerses the audience in the subtle nuances of his protagonist's every inhalation, exhalation and habitual mannerism.
Robin is tentatively embracing sobriety following years of alcohol abuse, but she is also weathering emotional and psychological trauma resulting from years of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her adoptive family. She welcomes a Sioux "road man" into her home, and we watch as he attempts to cleanse and "smudge" her residence of its evil influences with a smoldering bundle of sage.
"I'm really, really scared I'm going to start drinking again," Robin admits to the unwavering gaze of Sutherland's camera. She is seen struggling with both her existing responsibilities as a single mother and the newfound burdens of her decision to enroll at Minnesota State University Moorhead in order to pursue a degree in social work and psychology.
When Robin's daughter Darian delivers an unexpected, on-camera revelation of abuse suffered while in the custody of Anthony Charboneau III, Robin's recovery and educational pursuits are thrown into disarray. Soon after, Robin's cousin Josie comes forward with her own charges of abuse against Mr. Charboneau dating back to the period of time in which she was a foster child under his care. What follows is a labyrinthine and harrowing saga of generations of sexual abuse on the Spirit Lake Tribe Reservation and a frank depiction of the obstacles to due process that have stymied victims who have pursued their cases in Spirit Lake's Tribal Court.
Sutherland makes many pointed observations about the sometimes surreal and occasionally nonsensical operations of Spirit Lake's Tribal Court, such as the fact that its judges are not required to be trained in law and are also often related to the claimants and defendants in their cases. "There's something different in this film," he explains. "Because I'm very insistent that I'm a portraitist, I'm not an investigative reporter. The social issues always come out of my portraits. One thing that happened on this story that's very different is that I guess I have to own up to the fact that it's become more investigative, but I didn't intend that. I had no agenda about the Spirit Lake Tribe when I went there. I did talk to the Tribe early on, and that's how I ended up doing this film."
Following the completion of principal photography in September 2012, the Spirit Lake Nation retroceded control of its Tribal Social Services to the US Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs due to a growing outcry of concerns that operational mismanagement had led to child abuse on the reservation. In a statement released by the Bureau, the Spirit Lake Tribe conceded that a federal takeover of its Tribal Social Services "would be in the best interest of the Tribe, its children, and its families."
"I'm just getting used to talking about it," Sutherland confesses. "Hopefully this film will do something good, but that's not something I've ever had to talk about, and it doesn't mean that it will. Robin is a flawed protagonist. She learns to become a good mother. When I say she's flawed, how could she not be?"
At press time, Robin Charboneau is petitioning Spirit Lake's Tribal Court for sole custody of her children. Anthony Charboneau III, who was recently released from prison, is still recognized by the Tribal Court as having joint custody, notwithstanding his convictions of child sexual abuse.
Josh Slates is an independent producer and director based in Baltimore. His feature-length debut, Small Pond, was the recipient of the Programmers Award at the 2011 Sidewalk Film Festival and is now available on iTunes. He is also a film critic for The Signal, a weekly arts and culture program produced by WYPR Radio.