Native Lives Matter: A Solution to Police Violence in Indian Country

“Black Lives Matter!” The chant has echoed through America’s streets since Aug. 9, the day unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The Brown case focused attention on longstanding problems in black communities: racial profiling and police violence against young black men.

The perceived lack of justice in these and many other cases sparked major demonstrations, including a Dec. 20 rally at the Mall of America that drew more than 3,000 protesters.

But as millions rallied around the cause of human rights for African-Americans, many Indigenous people wonder if America thinks their lives matter. For every Michael Brown, for every Eric Garner, they say, there is a victim of police violence in Indian Country whose name you probably don’t know.

“It’s imperative to understand that this issue is not just about black people and white people. Despite the available statistical evidence, most people don’t know that Native Americans are most likely to be killed by police, compared with other racial groups. Native Americans make up about 0.8% of the population, yet account for 1.9% of police killings,” Simon Moya-Smith, an Oglala Lakota journalist, wrote in a CNN editorial last month.

“There is no outcry against what’s happening in Native American communities,” Lemoine LaPointe, a Lakota educator and community organizer from Rosebud, S.D. who lives in the Twin Cities said. “These very same atrocities that have been happening in the Black community have been happening to Native American people and without protest. It has to stop.” 

While police and military violence against Native American people has been occurring for hundreds of years, LaPointe said a recent rash of incidents could have been avoided if police officers had been trained to use violence as a last resort. He refers to the following as cases where lives might have been saved had responding officers deployed nonlethal tactics.

Lakota Man killed by Rapid City, S.D. Police after attending #NativeLivesMatter Rally

Dec. 19, 2014: Shouts of “Native lives matter” and “Hands up don’t shoot” echoed along two of Rapid City’s busiest streets as nearly 100 men, women and children gathered to call attention to police brutality and the loss of Native American lives in South Dakota’s second-largest city.

Among the marchers chanting and praying for the Rapid Creek victims was Allen Locke, a 30 year-old Lakota man, a sun dancer, and a resident of Rapid City who was about to become the latest Native person killed by Rapid City Police.

“Discrimination is alive here,” American Indian Movement leader Bill Means told the crowd before they set out for a walk down Fifth Street and along Omaha Street. As participants marched, the names of 25 individuals who have been killed along Rapid Creek over the past two decades were read.

At the Sixth Street Bridge spanning Rapid Creek the walkers paused to once again listen to the names of those who died along the banks below. Many of the deaths that occurred near Rapid Creek remain unsolved crimes, with cause of death listed as blunt force trauma or suicide.

“It’s a human rights crisis that we’re dying at those rates,” said Chase Iron Eyes, Lakota attorney and activist. “We’ve got problems, my relatives, but we’re the only ones that can fix them. Only we can save us.”

Royce Yellow Hawk of Rosebud, S.D. sang a memorial song for those who died along the creek. His older brother, Royal Yellow Hawk, was only 26 when his body was found near the creek in 2001.

The Rapid Creek victims were casualties of an “undeclared race war here in South Dakota,” Iron Eyes said.

The day following the Rapid City protest, police bullets took the life of Allen Locke. Locke was killed by a white officer responding to a call of an “unwanted subject” at 541 Paha Sapa Road. Just after 6 p.m. on Dec. 20, Officer Anthony Meirose arrived on scene at the Lakota Homes housing complex.

Capt. Dan Rud, a spokesman for the Rapid City Police Department told reporters, “Officer Meirose approached the house. While standing in the doorway, he was attacked by a male subject with a knife. The officer drew his weapon and shot the subject multiple times.”

Emergency Medical Services were immediately called to the scene but it was too late. Locke was pronounced dead at Rapid City Regional Hospital.

Rud said Locke was shot up to five times by Meirose, who was placed on paid administrative leave while the killing is investigated.

The fatal shooting, coming just one day after a non-violent protest against police brutality, ignited suspicions of a racial motive. Rud sought to lay those suspicions to rest. “This officer is white, the suspect is Native American,” he said, “but it’s not a race deal. This is based on criminal behavior and it had nothing to do with race. Had the race of the Police Officer be Native American and the suspect white the results would have been the same.”

Locke’s family has not yet offered its account of what occurred. His siblings, Christie and Darrell Locke, released a statement asking for calm and patience as they said goodbye.

“In light of the recent tragic events that have transpired at Lakota Homes and that have claimed the life of our son, brother, father, partner, grandson, uncle and loved one, we feel it imperative to issue a public statement asking the Rapid City and Native community at-large to bear with us as we grieve our loss and make arrangements for Allen.

“We genuinely appreciate the prayer vigils and ceremony circles that are being organized in Allen’s memory; this is a crucial time for our family as Allen is making his spirit journey.

“We feel the community’s hurt; we know you are angry, we know you are sad and we know everyone is on edge as a result of Allen’s violent death coming off the heels of his participation in the Anti-Police Brutality Rally and March a day before this horrific incident. There are many details that we will share in time but we are trying very hard to hold it together and to be strong and peaceful in order to send our loved one off.”

Mah-hi-vist “Red Bird” Goodblanket Killed by Custer County Deputies

Eighteen year-old Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, Cheyenne-Arapaho from Custer County, Okla., was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder in 2009. On Dec. 13, 2013, according to reports published in The Oklahoman newspaper, Mah-hi-vist was experiencing an episode associated with his medical condition. His parents, Wilbur and Melissa Goodblanket called police so that the teen wouldn’t harm himself. Two Custer County sheriff deputies entered the Goodblanket home and moments later shot the unarmed teen to death.

Goodblanket’s girlfriend, Naomi Barron, who was present when he was killed, said in a statement that Goodblanket had no weapons when the two white deputies opened fire. “He [had] his arms up and his hands were free … he had no weapons,” she said.

The autopsy report found that Goodblanket was shot seven times and determined the cause of death to be homicide. According to family, he was a motivated student who finished high school a year early and attended Haskell Indian Nations University. The Goodblanket family awaits word on whether or not the deputies will be charged.

Goodblanket’s mother told CNN she can’t comprehend why mainstream media does not report on the killings of unarmed Native Americans and why the killing of her son has failed to spark a national response. “Our 18 year-old son was murdered. This [incident] in itself should initiate an outrage among those who value life.”

The two white deputies involved in the shooting both received the Medal of Honor and one received the Purple Heart by his department after Goodblanket’s death. On the Custer County Sheriff’s Facebook page, a post said the awards were in “recognition of their performance above and beyond the call of duty while disregarding their own personal safety and exhibiting exceptional courage in a life threatening situation, stemming from a domestic call they responded to in December of 2013 … “

John T. Williams Shot to Death by Seattle Police

Williams, a 50-year-old traditional wood carver of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation, was shot four times by Seattle police officers on Aug. 30, 2010. The Seattle Times reported that Williams died at the scene, which was capture by a police dash cam. His only crime appears to have been walking down the street carrying a small, legal carving knife and a chunk of cedar.

Officer Ian Birk fired his weapon five times from a distance of 10 feet after giving Williams, who was deaf in one ear, four seconds to drop the knife. Without explaining their decision King County prosecutors decided not to charge Officer Birk with a criminal offense.

Birk resigned after the Firearms Review Board found that, among other problems, Birk didn’t identify himself as a police officer as he approached Williams from behind. The knife that Birk claimed was a threat was folded shut when found by responding officers.

Eight Year-Old Lakota Girl Tased by Police in Pierre, S.D.

On Oct. 4, 2013, the babysitter of an 8 year-old Lakota girl called police because the child had a knife in her hand and was threatening to hurt herself. The police entered the home and seconds later they Tased her from about five feet away. The girl’s mother, Dawn Stenstrom, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said the police used “excessive force” when they used a Taser on her girl.

A lawsuit filed against the City of Pierre says, “The force of the electricity shot through her body, lifted her, and threw her against the wall.”

Stenstrom’s attorney Dana Hanna told the Rapid City Journal that the girl suffered physical, psychological and emotional injuries. An investigation by the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation ruled that the officers had acted appropriately. Since the incident, Stenstrom and her daughter have moved from Pierre back to the Rosebud Reservation.

Benjamin Whiteshield Shot in Clinton, Okla. Police as Family Sought Care

On June 28, 2012, police officers in the city of Clinton, Okla. shot and killed Cheyenne-Arapaho Nation citizen Benjamin Whiteshield, 34, outside of their police station. Whiteshield’s family took him to the police station to get him help during a delusional episode. Whiteshield’s grandmother called police in advance and reported that Benjamin was holding a wrench and complaining that he didn’t know where he was. She is reported by NewsOK as having been assured by officers they would not hurt her grandson.

Several police officers met the family outside the police station where one of them drew his weapon and shot Whiteshield through the mouth. Family members say the several police officers present should have been able to peaceably subdue him.

District Attorney Dennis Smith ruled the shooting of Benjamin Whiteshield was justifiable. “We believe the officer acted in self-defense,” Smith told the Clinton Daily News. “The officer has been cleared.”

Crisis Intervention Team Training: A Solution for Indian Country

“When you take a look at those situations it appears like officers were at fault.” LaPointe said. “But rather than just pointing fingers, what I’d really like to do is offer a solution.”

That solution, LaPointe said, begins with every police officer in Indian Country acquiring Crisis Intervention Team training, a method of defusing interactions between police and members of the public without the use of force.

“With that young girl that was Tased in Pierre, for example: What happened to getting down on one knee and being about the height of that young child and talking as one human being to another?” LaPointe said. “That’s the best weapon that police officers can carry is the ability to conduct dialogue with someone. If we don’t enhance that ability to create rapport and serve our citizenry then we’re in trouble. And people know it.”

CIT was developed in 1988 by the University of Memphis in coordination with the Memphis Police Department and mental health professionals. According to its published guidelines, CIT provides law enforcement officials training for assisting those individuals with a mental illness, improves the safety of patrol officers, consumers, family members and citizens within the community.

While the CIT protocols, also known as the “Memphis Model” were designed for dealing with individuals experiencing mental illness, they can be effective for the peaceful diffusion of any crisis. LaPointe says there is urgency to act now to implement CIT in Native communities.

“President Obama is asking for $260 million from congress to address issues of police violence around the country. Native people have be part of the conversation or once again we will not be heard,” LaPointe, who is a certified Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trainer, said.

“CIT is a movement based on the notion of partnership between mental health providers, the police department and community advocacy leaders,” Mark Anderson said. He is the Executive Director of the Minneapolis-based Barbara Snyder Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the widespread adoption of the Memphis Model. “It’s a tough coalition because they don’t necessarily see eye to eye. Two of the partners are the system and the third is trying to change the system. The idea is to create a partnership between these three entities and then work on improving the response to people in crisis.

“What we’re seeing in some of these recent police killings is that there’s a big rush on the part of the police officer to change something, which causes an escalation of the confrontation and ends badly,” Anderson said. “The questions CIT asks is what’s the rush? We teach the police to slow down. Take the time to communicate. Remind them that this is a human being you’re dealing with.”

LaPointe said he would like to see the federal government grant the funds for regional conferences where tribal government officials, BIA and tribal police officers, and mental health professionals working in Indian communities come together and “indigenize” CIT for widespread application in Indian County.

“These situations haven’t been addressed so the likelihood of them occurring again is certain,” LaPointe warns. “We can save lives by being proactive.”

Dr. Dan Foster, Deputy Director and Supervisory Clinical Psychologist Rosebud (South Dakota) Indian Health Service Hospital and Clinic, said that the Memphis Model could be particularly useful in Native American communities. Foster attended a recent CIT training in Rosebud and was impressed by its potential to save lives.

“It says in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution that all are created equal. But, of course, we are not all endowed with the same gifts. We all look a bit different from one another and we all have different abilities. But what ‘All People are Created Equal’ means to me is that the beauty of each person is not in who they are, but what they do. CIT brings us back to the idea that each individual person has great worth.”

While he admires the poetic wording of America’s founding document, Foster indicts the “western system” as a “system that doesn’t work well for our species.” He calls homicide and suicide a “byproduct of the western system,” because it “serves few well and makes the majority unhappy.”

Foster says he would like to see CIT trainers on the Rosebud Reservation semi-annually as an antidote to the violence. “This teaches us a method for producing the very best outcomes for everyone involved, the police, mental health professionals, and the community.”