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Once an Inspiration to People at Home, a Former Star Now Faces Trial

After leaving the W.N.B.A., Schimmel coached a girls’ high school team during the 2018-19 season on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. She had settled into a much less visible basketball life until June 14, 2021, when she was arrested by the Umatilla tribal police on charges of felony assault and criminal mischief and misdemeanor counts including domestic abuse, menacing, reckless endangerment and harassment.

In a tribal court, officials said, the maximum sentence for a domestic violence conviction is a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. But the U.S. attorney’s office in Portland is handling the case because the Major Crimes Act, enacted in 1885, gives the federal government primary jurisdiction over more serious felonies when the accused and the victim are Native Americans and the incident happens on tribal lands.

The federal government’s role in the case is a concern among tribal leaders. The government has been frequently criticized for inadequate resolve in investigating crimes against Native American women, especially involving rape, murder and disappearances. When federal authorities do prosecute a high-profile case, Watchman said, disparities become apparent in the way similar cases involving non-Native Americans are resolved — often more quietly, in a lower court, perhaps with less vulnerability to lengthy sentences and huge fines.

“That is definitely an inequality in the way Native Americans are treated in the court system,” Watchman said. Referring to Schimmel’s case, he added, “It wouldn’t have gotten nearly so sensationalized if the word ‘felony’ hadn’t been attached to it.”

Shoni and Jude, now 29, are living among the Umatilla, working with their parents on tribal construction projects, still playing basketball, officials said. Recently, Watchman said, Shoni’s team won a regional tournament for players 30 and older.

“It’s not like she’s moping around in the dark caves thinking the whole world hates her,” he said.

Even so, he said, scrutiny can be distressing.

“When something happens and you get spotlighted,” Watchman said, “it feels like the whole world knows and you feel uncomfortable walking around people that love you and care about you.”

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