FRONTLINE PBS: Predator on the Reservation

IHS history makes doctors like Weber inevitable

Native Sun News Today Contributing Editor

RAPID CITY— It took over a quarter century before the hammer of justice finally came down on pedophile pediatrician Stanley Patrick Weber, when he was found guilty of ten counts of child sexual abuse in recent court rulings, two counts occurring during the few years he spent at the Blackfoot Indian Health Service (IHS), in Browning, Montana, and eight, for the subsequent years he spent at the Pine Ridge IHS facility (1995-2011).

While the details of his crimes, and the incompetence or duplicity that facilitated those crimes, is often the subject of reporting when it comes to Weber, what isn’t often reported is the disturbing failure of the process that created a health service where a perpetrator like Weber could operate so destructively over the span of decades.

It is difficult to put the spotlight on the IHS when such a heinous serious of crimes are the catalyst for that spotlight. But now that the victims have some closure by virtue of these long overdue verdicts, how did the IHS become the underfunded, poorly staffed, bureaucratically addled mess that is currently responsible for Native American health care needs?

Before the Geneva Convention of 1929, which attempted to establish some humane ground rules for human conflict, there was the Doctrine of Discovery, defined by the Supreme Court in 1823. Basically, if the US invaded aboriginal homelands, they belonged to the US, but this carried a responsibility for the original inhabitants. It is understandable, then, that Indian policy based upon right of conquest and seizure is not going to be humanitarian in conception.

A 'pedophile': Stanley Patrick Weber, a former Indian Health Service pediatrician, has been convicted of abusing Indian children on the Blackfeet Nation in Montana and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: U.S. Attorney's Office

In 1849 the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was transformed out of the War Department to the Department of the Interior, and this was actually a fairly forward thinking decision given the tenor of the times. It took a quarter century, but the BIA decided to establish divisions for health and education. Problem then, as now, no funding.

Despite treaties which stipulate that health care needs will be met, with no mention of their cost, health care needs are routinely not met, because of their cost. The health division was shut down in 1877. Not that they didn’t keep physicians, as promised in the Fort Laramie 1868 Treaty. They kept 77 of them in 1880, to service the entire treaty obligated population, in every state and territory the US controlled. That averages out to about one physician for every reservation.

It wasn’t until 1926 physicians from the Commissioned Corps of US Public Health Service were assigned to Indian health.

In 1928, the “Merriam Report,” was requested by the Secretary of Interior, to help define the extent of the problem, and what it would take to get the BIA to meet the minimum health standard for Indians. Although the report recognized the root causes of the poor health care, it provided a solution which is still the solution almost a hundred years later: increase funding and reorganize to optimize efficiency. Then, as now, this advice was not applied to the extent it changed much of anything.

The Johnson-O’Malley Act came along in 1934, and this allowed contracting for Indian health services. But for the next 20 years, progressive elements and tribal bodies lobbied for health care to be removed from the BIA because there wasn’t much improvement. Ideally, all tribes would have been enrolled for Medicaid, the most cost effective way to ensure the treaty obligated health care needs were met to the national standard. But Medicaid was not created until 1965.

By this time a disturbing mentality had set in, not only with the government, but with the tribes themselves, that health care not meeting treaty stipulated standards, was acceptable for Indians. Dysfunctional, underfunded institutional incompetence became the established norm. And it began to take a horrific outcome to prompt the same changes minor outcomes prompted in non-Indian health care.

In 1954, Indian health care was transferred to the Public Health Service, and this seemed like a step into normalizing the quality of health care across all agencies. This was not to be the case. The IHS was established in 1955, and it undertook setting up an IHS health care network, establishing standards for IHS staff, and although health care improved, in the long run it became like the Merriam Report of 1926, basically laying out guidelines and ground rules for how health care should be, but not having a critical impact on fixing flaws in the operational reality.

The continued separation between the goals and procedures established by policy, and the ugly reality of the actual care received, reached its ruefully comical apex in 1976. The Indian Health Care Improvement Act was supposed to implement “the highest possible health status to Indians and to provide existing Indian health services with all the resources necessary to effect the policy.”


Support Native media!

Read the rest of the story on Native Sun News Today: IHS history makes doctors like Weber inevitable

James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News Today

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
IHS doctor found guilty (October 7, 2019)
Recap: Opening day of 10th annual National Tribal Health Summit (May 13, 2019)
A 'monster': Outrage over Indian Health Service doctor convicted of abuse (May 1, 2019)
Indian Health Service budget in focus amid ongoing controversies (April 8, 2019)
Tribes rush to court to defend health care after being abandoned by Trump (April 2, 2019)
Co-chair of new Indian health task force played role in blowing up Indian health law (March 28, 2019)
Cronkite News: Task force aims to prevent child abuse within Indian health care system (March 27, 2019)
Mark Trahant: Donald Trump's attack puts the Indian health care system at risk (March 27, 2019)
'Institutional and systemic breakdown' at Indian Health Service under scrutiny (March 26, 2019)
White House announces task force after Indian Health Service pediatrician was convicted of abuse (March 26, 2019)
VIDEO: Indian Health Service official discusses pediatrician convicted of abuse (March 6, 2019)
Mary Annette Pember: Media continues to tell Native stories without our input (February 25, 2019)
Sen. Mike Rounds: Indian Health Service fails its trust and treaty obligations (February 22, 2019)
Timeline: Leadership Crisis at the Indian Health Service (February 6, 2019)
Native Sun News Today: Former Indian Health Service doctor sentenced for abusing boys (January 24, 2019)
Native Sun News Today: Former Indian Health Service pediatrician awaits sentencing for abuse (December 26, 2018)
Native Sun News Today: 'Bad men' treaty provision invoked in abuse cases (December 18, 2018)
Former Indian Health Service executive indicted for accepting cash gift (July 13, 2017)
Native Sun News Today: Ex-Indian Health Service doctor charged for abuse of minor (March 16, 2017)
Trending in News
More Headlines