Tag Archives: Police Violence

Remembering Zachary Bearheels

A year and a half ago I wrote a post about the killing of Zachary Bearheels by a police officer in Omaha, Nebraska. You can read that story here. On Friday of last week, the district attorney announced that no charges will be filed against the officer involved.

This morning, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) tweeted out a recent New York Times story reporting that authorities in Sacramento would not file charges against the officer who gunned down Stephon Clark. “Our legal system continues to tell our Black neighbors that their lives are disposable,” Tlaib wrote. “It’s uncomfortable to put a mirror up, but what hurts more is allowing senseless killings, by those who are supposed to protect us, to continue with no accountability.”

I am glad Tlaib is speaking out about this issue, but it is not enough, and the approach is too limited, for native peoples are more likely to die at the hands of police than any other group in American society. The injustice is deep, the remedy elusive, but the problem simply must be addressed.

In Indian Country, the Police Are Not Your Friends

A deeply disheartening story appeared in Buzzfeed looking at relations between native peoples and local law enforcement on Wisconsin’s Bad River Reservation.  It was here, last year, where a sheriff’s deputy shot to death 14-year old Jason Pero.  And it is here, according to members of the Bad River community who spoke to Buzzfeed’s John Stanton, where rape, harassment, and racism are all experienced by members of the community at the hands of white law enforcement.  Pictures and a poem written by Jason Pero. Jason, 14, was shot and killed by Ashland County Sheriff’s Deputy Brock Mrdjenovich on Nov. 8, 2017.

Stanton presents to his readers figures that you are familiar with if you have been reading my blog.  According to the CDC, Stanton writes, “Native Americans are more likely to be killed during an interaction with law enforcement than any other racial group. In 2017, at least 31 indigenous people died as a result of an encounter with law enforcement. In 2016, the number was 29.”

And, he continues,

On a per-capita basis, Native Americans are 12% more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers than black Americans — and three times more likely than white Americans.

If you live on one of the dozens of reservations across the country in which local, white police forces from nearby border towns have jurisdiction, the chances that you’ll end up in jail are high. In Ashland County, for instance, Native Americans make up 11% of the population but account for 44% of the inmates in the county jail, according to data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice research and reform group.

It is an impressive piece, and Stanton has done much more work than most journalists writing about Indian country.  He looked at census data, showing the relative poverty of Bad River, and relatively high rates of unemployment.  He looks at the community’s history. “You don’t have to look far back for examples of racial tensions boiling over here,” he writes.

During the Wisconsin Walleye War between 1988 and 1991, white protesters hurled racial epithets and sometimes eggs and rocks at Ojibwe tribal members spear fishing for walleye, a tradition protected under treaties between the US government and the tribe. Although the violence eventually ended after a federal judge upheld the Ojibwe right to spear fish, distrust and bitterness between the two communities remained.

According to one member of the community, things at Bad River are not as bad as they were back in the 1970s and 1980s.  Whites and Indians are “inextricably linked” in Ashland County, with native peoples and their white neighbors coexisting “in an uneasy truce of convenience and routine.” The tribe’s casino is a major engine in the local economy, especially during the summer months. The system seems to work for white people as long as the members of the Bad River community stay quiet.  But with evidence of rape, and the murder of Jason Pero by a deputy sheriff, people are speaking out.  Sandra Gokee, a family relation of Jason’s and a teacher at the Ashland Middle School, was suspended for an angry Facebook post in which she lamented the murder of Jason by a deputy sheriff.  According to her superintendent, Gokee created racial tensions in the school and made the children of white police officers feel unsafe.

We are no longer in the 1970s and 1980s, but in the short time Our New Nero has been in office, racial tensions have increased.  The small progress made over decades has been threatened.

Stanton’s fantastic article will give students a sense of the amount of racism existing in communities where native people and white people live in close contact, the ability of law enforcement to prey upon Indians with few consequences, and the complexities of law enforcement created by Public Law 280 back in the 1950s.  But more than any of that, he highlights the pain caused by the murder of yet another child, by yet another law enforcement officer, in yet another incident where deadly force was hardly necessary.


Two important stories came across the line yesterday, and those of us who teach Native American history need to do a better job of following them.  On June 5, police officers killed Zachary Bearheels, a twenty-nine year old man with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Bearheels was punched in the head and shocked by a taser several times.  Omaha police have admitted that the officers’ conduct was a violation of departmental policy and that two of the officers involved would be terminated. 

According to the story reported on the Indian Country Today Media Network, Bearheels had been traveling from South Dakota to Oklahoma City aboard a bus. After a passenger complained about his conduct, he was kicked off and left stranded in Omaha.  Bearheels was behaving in a manner that police were called by witnesses.  He was attacked and abused by the police. Witnesses, and the internal reports of the Omaha Police Department, both indicated that Bearheels posed no threat and that the violence was entirely unjustified, and “egregious violations of the Omaha Police Department’s policy procedures and training on the use of force and the use of a taser.”


Bearheels’ death at the hands of the Omaha Police is one more example of the larger problem reported in a story looking at “The Police Killings No One is Talking About” that appeared In These Times. The story was written by Stephanie Woodard, and the evidence she presents is harrowing.  Police killed twenty-one Native Americans in 2016, up from 15 in 2014.  According to a 2014 study from the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other demographic in the United States. Native Americans are 3.1 times more likely to be killed by the police than white Americans.

Joseph Murphy, for example, a thirty-three year old veteran of the Iraq War:  He died of a heart attack in a holding cell in a Juneau jail.  He had called for help, but guards yelled “Fuck You” and “I don’t care” in response to his pleas for medical assistance. Others were shot sitting in cars, or while holding knives, or while distraught and unwilling to listen to police demands that they comply. In nearly every case, the homicides were ruled justifiable.

And the parallels to what we have witnessed in the African-American community are clear.  Many reservation border towns are rife with racism and discrimination against native peoples.  I saw this first hand in Hardin, where I attempted to conduct interviews nearly twenty years ago. I had heard some of my Crow students describe the racism they faced at Hardin High School. I wanted to get at relations between the Crows and their white neighbors.  I was not able to immerse myself in the community deep enough to get white people to talk to me, but the problems were not hard to see there.   And in Billings, sixty miles from Crow, where I lived, and where native peoples were a despised and unwelcome minority.  Expressions of racism towards native peoples were, to me, shockingly common and public.

I have spent a large part of my career, in a sense, writing about white violence against native peoples. In my first book, I looked at the violence of the Anglo-American frontier, and the sources of the racial antipathy that took route there .  I wrote about the race wars pitting native peoples against land-hungry settlers in New England and the Chesapeake in the seventeenth centuries.  I wrote about the murder of an Algonquian weroance near Roanoke Island in 1586, and the consequences of that violent act.  In my relatively recent book on Canandaigua, I wrote about the violence on the Pennsylvania and New York frontier, where the unpunished murder of Senecas by frontier whites served as one of the major grievances American officials and Haudenosaunee diplomats needed to address.   I could teach my courses in Native American history focusing on acts of violence every day if I wished, from Roanoke to Jamestown, to Marblehead to the Lancaster Workhouse to Gnaddenhutten and Sand Creek, from Wounded Knee to Omaha and border towns throughout Native America where, too often, law enforcement officers are ending the lives of native peoples.  It is an old, old story, this, and it needs to stop.

Black Lives Matter has brought massive attention to the slaughter of African Americans at the hands of police.  The entire Black Lives Matter movement has done such important work in focusing attention on racism and discrimination and violence perpetrated by police against African Americans. At the same time, as Woodard points out, “a larger narrative is at play: racial issues in the United States tend to be framed as black and whites, while other groups are ignored.”

I plan on assigning Woodard’s piece when I teach my Indian law class again next spring, and spend some time on this issue.  Students come to college inclined to think of native peoples as being part of the past.  Their understanding of civil rights and discrimination and race relations is, as Woodard points out, too often limited to thinking in terms of matters black and white.  They can only benefit by reading closely these powerful stories, and learning that the police, in all too many instances, are viewed as a threat by the people they are supposed to protect and serve.