Respecting her culture while serving the badge
The sun is high over our heads as we drive through the landscape of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in north-central Oregon. We are here to visit with Starla Green, a recently retired police officer with the Warm Springs Police Department, and a woman devoted to living her life and raising her daughter according to her culture.
My mind is rushing with questions and a “wow!” in between each one as we approach Starla’s family ranch. This is the first time I can recall being on a reservation and I am anxious to make a good impression and not put my foot in my mouth – something I have been known to do to.
I feel a sense of the familiar as we pull up. My husband Charlie’s family has a ranch that was homesteaded by his family in 1913 in New Mexico, and Starla’s ranch has the same feeling. It’s not fancy – it’s serviceable. Money is spent not frivolously but intentionally, with well-kept horses in the corral while the ranch house and outbuildings do their job of keeping out the weather and keeping those inside warm and dry.
We are met by Starla’s welcoming committee – JT and Jaxon, two ranch dogs that alert those inside that someone has arrived while alerting the newcomers that there isn’t a need to use the doorbell. Starla calls the dogs to her and, as we walk over, welcomes us into her world – and, in turn, welcomes you into her story.
For this story, I will do my best to share my impressions of Starla, her culture, and her devotion to serving others. But, to serve her story best, we have added links throughout the story so that you may listen to her own words.
Starla’s career in law enforcement is intertwined with the landscape of her family and the culture of her people – her story would be incomplete without all three being present.
Alongside her horses and 180-plus head of cattle, Starla is raising the fourth generation of her family on the ranch. Nestled between several buttes and bordered by the Deschutes River, the ranch house originally served as housing at a Japanese internment camp during World War II. When the camp closed, some of those houses made their way to the reservation. Over the years, the house was expanded to include additional bedrooms and, perhaps most important, a large meeting room where her community comes together to perform their ceremonies. It is within this circle that she is raising her daughter. Some of the traditions may seem inconvenient in today’s world, but Starla and her family do them anyway. She uses the word “strict” when she describes her traditions, but this is her center, her culture, and if you were to remove the traditions, there would be a hole in the family that could never be filled.
Her father was a non-native cowboy who was on the rodeo circuit and met her mother while she was racing one of her horses at an Oregon track. He was invited back to the ranch and on his first evening, with a kerosene lantern lighting their meal, he fell in love — with the family, the ranch, and the woman who would become his wife and the mother of his two children. He was a man of principles but followed his own rules. Sometimes those rules were at odds with the law and, as Starla shared with us, he was an outlaw. When she was 14, her uncle was at the ranch and talking about the new Police Explorer program that he was tasked with creating at the Warm Springs Police Department and he encouraged her to join up. Much to the astonishment of her father, and perhaps in spite of her father, she did.
Her 21-year career in law enforcement was not necessarily in harmony with her culture, but with the help of her twut’ti (medicine person) grandparents and her mother, she was able to adapt ceremonies to make the two pieces work together. An example of how her career and culture were not in harmony was in the handling of the deceased. In her culture, those who can handle the dead are called undertakers. They live a strict life with rituals that protect them from the spirits. As a law enforcement officer, Starla could administer CPR on someone who was dying or help to move bodies. On one occasion, when she came home with blood on her shoes and pants after performing CPR, her mother conducted a cleansing prayer ceremony for her that included submerging herself in the river on a cold winter night.
Starla was sometimes called to act as a member of the tribe rather than as a policewoman when responding to a call. She found herself at times called to perform a ceremony while in uniform or, on the flip side, was in full ceremonial gear when called out on police business. Much like the river that borders her ranch, she pushed the boundaries but also followed the path laid before her.
Like those who work in many small communities, she struggled with policing her own. It was not uncommon for her to have to recuse herself from an arrest because she was the victim — cattle rustling being one of the reasons — or she would arrest a relative one day, only to find herself at a family dinner with that person on another. When you are a member of a police agency for a sovereign nation, your work is often complicated by native versus non-native jurisdictional issues.
As an officer for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, her jurisdiction was over those who were members of a federally recognized tribe, while non-natives fell under the county or state. That didn’t mean she couldn’t enforce the law when interacting with non-natives, but she would transfer custody of them to the county sheriff. However, if the offense was a major crime involving tribal members – homicide, rape, etc. – it fell under federal jurisdiction and would go to the FBI. Usually, this was very straightforward, but if the suspect was unknown it could require the involvement of multiple agencies and jurisdictions. In one case, a non-native was murdered on the reservation and the suspect was unknown. Since final jurisdiction was unclear, the investigation required the involvement of the Warm Springs P.D., FBI, state police, and sheriff’s office, as well as the U.S. attorney’s office, county attorney and tribal members. Starla chuckled in recalling the difficulties of coordinating so many agencies.
There’s something at the Warm Springs agency that keeps pulling her back. While her career began and ended there, she left for a couple of years to complete her bachelor’s degree, came back, then left again to work at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in Madras, Oregon. While recuperating from shoulder surgery – she was injured while breaking up a bar fight – she found herself back in Warm Springs working with sex offenders. The desk work about drove her crazy and before she knew it, she was back in a Warm Springs P.D. uniform as a lieutenant. She retired in July last year but, when pressed, can’t say that she wouldn’t go back.
As Starla and I sat in the shade, alongside the Deschutes River, our conversation was winding to a close. I had one last question for her: What was it in her law enforcement career that gave her the most satisfaction? She paused, then said, “Putting the bad guys in jail.” It was locking up those who harm children, saving children from their molesters. Living with the knowledge that she helped to give them their childhood back. Letting the kids know that their molesters and abusers couldn’t hurt them anymore. It’s what kept her going.
As we began our goodbyes, she shared with us some traditional roots that she and her daughter had gathered and dried. She sent us on our way with salmon that she had caught and canned, and a jar of huckleberries. I left her ranch that day knowing that my mind had been expanded and that I had a ranch I would be welcomed back to.
All images for this story were provided by Starla and we thank her for her generosity in the use of them.
Written by Tricia Simmons, edited by Kevin Frazzini, layout by Charlie Simmons 06/12/19