Police shootings of Native Americans are generating greater attention after recent reports reveal that Native Americans are more likely to be killed by the police than any other racial group in the United States.
“The racial group most likely to be killed by law enforcement is Native Americans, followed by African Americans, Latinos, Whites and Asian Americans,” according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collected between 1999 and 2011 shows that Native Americans, who are 0.8 percent of the United States population, comprise 1.9 percent of police killings. They are 3.1 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. (Law enforcement kills African Americans at 2.8 times the rate of whites.)
“Yet these killings of Native people go almost entirely unreported by mainstream U.S. media,” writes Stephanie Woodard in a special investigation released this month. Of the 29 Native people killed by police between May 2014 and October 2015, only one received sustained coverage in any of the nation’s top 10 newspapers, and brief mentions of a second shooting misidentified the victim, Suquamish tribal member Daniel Covarrubias, as Latino. None of the other 27 deaths received any coverage.
Major media likewise failed to report on a series of Native deaths in custody in 2015, including that of Sarah Lee Circle Bear, a 24-year-old Sioux mother of two who died in a South Dakota jail after being denied medical care during the same month that Sandra Bland died in police custody.
Ms. Woodard reports that even the most recent and most egregious examples of resistance to civil rights for Native Americans by police, public agencies, and private citizens continue to be left out of the national conversation about race. Recent hearings held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), an independent federal agency created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, revealed that Native Americans today experience mistreatment, from being denied service in public places to police brutality, that “sound[s] like tales from the pre-civil-rights Deep South.”
In Northern Plains states, USCCR members personally observed staff in restaurants and stores hassling or refusing to serve Natives. In South Dakota, the commission heard testimony about a police department that found reasons to fine Natives hundreds of dollars, then “allowed” them to work off the debt on a ranch. USCCR Rocky Mountain director Malee Craft described the situation as “slave labor.”
Violence and discrimination against Native Americans are legacies of this country’s history of racial injustice. The United States has done very little to acknowledge the genocide of Native Americans or the myth of racial difference created to justify the “removal” of Native people and the forced assimilation of their children. Generations of Native American activists have challenged this country to more truthfully confront this history and its legacy, which includes not only the highest police-violence rates, but also the highest poverty and suicide rates in the country.
The latest incarnation of this activism is Native Lives Matter. On December 19, 2014, NLM founder and Lakota attorney Chase Iron Eyes and others, taking inspiration from Black Lives Matter, marched in Rapid City, South Dakota, to draw attention to police brutality against Native people. The next day, Rapid City police shot and killed Allen Locke, a Native man who had attended the protest. In the nearly two years since, activists across the country have adopted the NLM slogan as an umbrella term to advocate for a range of issues affecting Native people, from child welfare to mass incarceration, and to seek accountability for police violence against Native and non-Native people.
After 32-year-old Jacqueline Salyers, a member of the Puyallup tribe, was killed by police in Tacoma, Washington, earlier this year, her family and tribal members joined with other residents, Native and non-Native, who had lost loved ones to police violence. Under the banner “Justice for Jackie, Justice for All,” they are now advocating for a statewide ballot initiative that seeks greater police accountability for using lethal force.
Ramona Bennett, a Puyallup elder in her 70’s who was gassed, beaten, shot at, and arrested during 1970s protests for Native rights, wants recognition and accountability for Native victims of police violence like Jackie Salyers – and for victims of racial violence who have been been denied public acknowledgement and commemoration for decades. She explained that, in the late 19th century, presidential proclamations and Congressional actions broke up the Puyallup reservation and forced tribal members to move to isolated cabins on separate plots.
“Fishing and trapping were outlawed, so the men went out at night, making the cabins very dangerous,” says Bennett. “White men would come, kick the doors in, rape and murder the [women] and throw their bodies on the railroad tracks, where they’d be called ‘railroad accident deaths.’ … We discovered in our tribal enrollment office a stack of ‘railroad death’ documents from 1912 to 1917.’’
Among them was one that recorded the death of Bennett’s grandmother Jennie.
The Justice for Jackie, Justice for All effort will succeed, Bennett believes. “But I’m still out for justice for Jennie … a girl who has been dead for 104 years.”