Category Archives: #NativeLivesMatter

WHen THey Show Up in Unexpected Places, Sometimes Indigenous People Die

On July 16 in Salinas, California, police gunned down a nineteen-year-old man named Gerardo Martinez. A neighbor called and said that Martinez was very drunk, and that Martinez had threatened him with a black handgun. But the neighbor was not sure, and later in the 911 call said that he thought the weapon was a BB gun and that Martinez may have been under the influence of methamphetamines.

The police responded. They attempted to negotiate with Martinez in Spanish. But Martinez did not speak Spanish. He spoke only the Mexican Indian language of Zapotec, according to Latin American Indigenous Activists who issued a statement a week after the shooting. “As a monolingual Zapoteco speaker, he did not understand the command to come out of his home and raise your arms,” they said.

The Salinas Police Department disputed this assessment. “We now know the deceased spoke conversant Spanish based on a body-worn camera from a prior contact with law enforcement,” a police spokesperson said. They did not elaborate, and they did not provide evidence.

Both of these sources cannot be right, making it difficult to sort out what happened on the night of July 16. According to the LA Times, in a story that appeared on August 3rd, a 2010 survey indicated that there were nearly 165,000 Indigenous farm workers and family members within the state of California, “many of whom have only a basic grasp of Spanish.” That was more than ten years ago. It is easy to imagine that those numbers have increased over the course of the past decade.

Police in a number of communities, including Salinas in the aftermath of Martinez’s killing, have begun to undertake efforts to reach out to the Indigenous community. They are doing so in Ventura County, where I am now, with the help of non-profit groups like the Mixteco-Indigena Organizing Project based in Oxnard. Arcenio Lopez, its executive director, said “these are populations that are in constant fear of law enforcement because of previous experiences in their own countries–there is no trust.” The toxic climate towards Mexican immigrants in the United States cannot help this situation.

This is a tragic case. A young men came to the United States from the small town of San Vicente Coatlan in Oaxaca. A bad night, far from home, and the police are called, shots are fired, and a young man is killed. One more casualty resulting from the proliferation of guns in America. But in this case the question lingers as to whether the victim even understood what the police were asking him to do.

Martinez is dead, to a great degree, because police believed that he could not possibly be monolingual, that as a Mexican he must speak and understand enough Spanish to respond to their commands.

Settler colonialism is premised on the disappearance of Indigenous peoples, along with their culture, their values, and their language. Sometimes Indigenous people show up in places, and in ways, that are unexpected to non-Indians. The resulting surprise can get people killed. Martinez’s case shows that this is as true today as it has been throughout this country’s long and violent history.

Indigenous Lives Matter: Some Thoughts on the Death of Reynold High Pine, 1972.

The authorities in Yellowstone County quickly determined Reynold High Pine’s case of death. They found his body in the Burlington Northern Freight Yard on Billings’ south side early in the morning on May 14, 1972. County Coroner Leonard A. Larson concluded that the sixty-year-old man from Pine Ridge had stumbled into the path of a coming train around 6:30pm the evening before. Larson chose that time because it was then that the last train passed through the yard on those tracks before workers spotted the body at 4:30am. So certain was he that Larson felt no need for either an autopsy or an inquest. He did not even bother to draw a blood sample.

Native Americans in Billings did not think that Larson had things right. They suspected a cover-up, and they had good reason. Larson’s conclusions about High Pine’s time of death could not have been correct. Several witnesses saw High Pine at the Standard Bar on Minnesota Avenue, hours after the coroner said he died. These witnesses saw High Pine around midnight, in an altercation with Orville “Buzz” Jones, a 23-year old police officer who had just finished his shift at 11:00pm and was working, in uniform, as a bouncer at the bar. It just did not add up. High Pine was 5’3″, and 130 pounds. Jones had a full foot on him, seventy pounds, and a night stick which witnesses said he used.

T.R. Glenn, a Crow and the chairman of the Montana chapter of American Indian Movement (AIM) based at Eastern Montana College, said that “There is a conflict between the police version of what happened and the stories of the southside people who were witnesses.” Glenn and his associates–Ray Spang, a Northern Cheyenne, and a Winnebago named Frank LeMere–decided to visit Billings police chief Gerald T. Dunbar.

Frank LeMere in 2017.

Glenn, Spang, and LeMere were upset. AIM as an organization was founded in the Twin Cities of Minnesota to monitor police brutality against the cities’ Native American population. HIgh Pine’s case looked and smelled like police brutality at a minimum, and the cover up of a murder at worst, especially because Dunbar denied that there had been any incident involving one of his officers.

They didn’t get far. Dunbar said that he would meet with “any group to hear a complaint if they acted rationally and didn’t shout.” The AIM activists did not meet Dunbar’s standard. He refused to meet with the “Long-Haired–until they acted decently and didn’t have a chip on their shoulder.” LeMere, who was in no mood to be told what sort of protest was proper and suitable for the chief of police, afterward said that “we simply exercised our right to protest inadequacies in police dealing regarding Indians. An Indian dies in Billings and everyone forgets–not even an autopsy was performed and this has got to change.” LeMere wondered how many more Indians would die.

Other Native Americans in Billings, not involved with AIM, were watching the conduct of the police. The 92 members of the moderate Billings American Indian Council joined the AIM activist in raising questions about High Pine’s death. Protests were scheduled and organized, with word of a march bringing in indigenous peoples from throughout North America.

This pressure forced Yellowstone County Attorney Harold Hanser to organize an inquest. He said his decision “was not prompted by Indian protest.” One of the jurors on the panel was a Crow, but the other four were white men, all familiar to the coroner. They concluded that the “probable cause” of High Pine’s death was being struck by a train, but they clearly had their doubts. They underlined the word “probable” in their report. None of the protesters were satisfied.

I do not know how Reynold High Pine died. But I question the coroner’s conclusions, and I bet you do, too. It is folly to pretend that historians do not live in the world of events. Though our craft emphasizes the importance of objectivity, it is never quite that simple. We read the work of scholars who preceded us. We work our way through the primary sources. We must do so honestly and fairly. We should not allow our biases and prejudices to color our interpretation of the sources we read. Few historians would disagree with these simple propositions.

Think about this story. I learned of Reynold High Pine because I saw an article in the important Native American newspaper Akwesasne Notes, which I had been reading because of its relevance to my research on the history of the Onondaga Nation. It was something that I stumbled across. Something about this story caught my eye. The reasons for this are not hard to imagine. I lived in Billings for four years, and I taught at Montana State University at Billings, formerly Eastern Montana College. I heard from more than a few Crow and Northern Cheyenne students I came to know about the rough treatment they received from the police and the county sheriff in Billings. But there is more to it than that. I read that story about High Pine in Akwesasne Notes the same day that the district attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, announced that the grand jury would indict none of the officers who gunned own Breonna Taylor in her own apartment. I read the article amidst the grief and frustration in Rochester, where I live now, that has surfaced since police videos became public showing officers strangling a troubled and naked African-American man on a winter night back in March. I attended some of the protests in downtown Rochester, just a couple of miles from where I live.

The point is that we historians, at the end of the day, seek answers to questions, and we set out to answer these questions in a systematic, thorough, and disciplined manner. These questions can come from many sources. It might be our sense that something is wrong in the prevailing interpretation of a historical event, and we want to know what really happened and why. But sometimes the events happening around us cause us to see something new in the sources–a connection, a parallel, or a line of inquiry–we might never have dreamed of otherwise.

Black Lives Matter. We’ve been saying this since Ferguson, Missouri. Indigenous peoples, too, are killed in disproportionate numbers by law enforcement. This reality has bothered me for years, and I have written about it in a number of posts that have appeared on this blog. Reynold High Pine’s story shows us that the lives of Native peoples don’t mean much in cities and towns where they live on the margins, struggling to get by, coming and going, fucking up, falling apart, and too often getting beaten down. What is, always has been. White people have taken Native peoples’ lands and they’ve taken Native peoples’ lives. And in this country, historians will provide the only accounting of a problem that is as old as the encounter between natives and newcomers on these shores. and that may not be much of an accounting at all when so many Americans are so determined to hear nothing bad about their nation at all.

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.

The Justice Department is Working Hard and Standing Still

About a month ago the United States Department of Justice issued its report on Indian Country Investigations and Prosecutions.  The report includes a wealth of data on how and why the Justice Department decided to prosecute or not prosecute violent crime committed in Indian Country.  As AP writer Mary Hudetz put it, the Justice Department’s “track record for prosecuting Indian Country crimes has not significantly changed in recent years, even amid programs and attempts to boost both public safety and prosecutions on tribal lands”

The Justice Department declined to prosecute in 37% of the cases referred to it. The most common explanation for this, DOJ officials wrote, was a lack of reliable evidence. 

Read the Justice Department’s press release announcing the report.  You will not be able to miss the celebratory tone. DOJ officials appear genuinely proud of what the department has done.  For critics, however, with violence against Native American women drawing increasing scrutiny and legislative attention, there is an enormous amount of additional work that needs to be done.  A week before the DOJ released its report, Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s “Savanna’s Act” advanced in the Senate. 

Savanna LaFontaine-Graywind

Heitkamp’s bill drew its inspiration from Savanna La Fontaine-Greywind, who was murdered in 2017 in Fargo, (you can read about her story on this blog here)  and the shattering report by the Urban Indian Health Institute, which indicated that of the 5712 cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) reported in 2016, only 116 case were logged on the Department of Justice Database.  95% of the cases studied by the Urban Indian Health Institute never were covered by the media. 

So two stories.  One, a story of progress, of resources committed, actions taken, and jobs well done.  The other, indicating that despite these efforts and actions, much more must be done.

Native Lives Matter

One of the items students in my Indian Law class will be reading for next week’s classes is the Lakota People’s Law Project study, Native Lives MatterA number of disturbing figures leap out.

 “Although Native youth are only 1 percent of the national youth population, 70 percent of youth committed to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as delinquents are Native American, as are 31 percent of youth committed to the BOP as adults.”

“Native men are admitted to prison at 4 times the rate of white men and Native women are admitted to prison at 6 times the rate of white women.”

While “Native American youth represent 1 percent of the U.S. population, yet they constitute 2-3 percent of the youth arrested for larceny, theft, and liquor law violations.”

“In 2008, tribal youth served an average of 26 months under federal jurisdiction, which was more than double the tribal justice system maximum sentence of 12 months.”

“In four states (South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, and Montana), Native youth account for anywhere from 29 to 42 percent of youth in secure confinement. Of all youth in the nation who are prosecuted federally, 32 percent are placed in a secure facility for juvenile offenders and 74 percent of these are Native American.   Lastly, from 2004 to 2008, the average conviction rate for tribal youth (92 percent) was higher than for non-tribal youth (87 percent).

“In total, the number of Native Americans per capita confined in state and federal prisons is approximately 38 percent above the national average. The rate of confinement in local jails has been estimated to be nearly four times the national average.”

“According to the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics iteration on the topic, Native Americans are the victims of violent crimes at more than twice the rate of all United States residents–the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 88 percent of violent crime committed against Native American women is done so by non-Native perpetrators.”

The study is well documented, and offers a number of solutions:  South Dakota must hire a police force that reflects the population it patrols.  It must eliminate the for-profit elements in the state’s criminal justice system.  South Dakota should stop viewing its corrupt foster care system as a way to make money from the federal government through the placement of native children. And, finally, tribes should be given jurisdiction over crimes committed by Native American children.


A Lament for Colten Boushie

Late last Friday night the jury delivered its verdict in the trial of Gerald Stanley, the Saskatchewan farmer accused of murdering a young Cree man named Colten Boushie. Stanley shot Boushie in the head at close range and killed him. The all-white jury could have found Stanley guilty of murder in the second degree or manslaughter.  Instead they acquitted him entirely.

It is not entirely clear what happened on Stanley’s farm that afternoon late in the summer of 2016, other than that there was an altercation involving Stanley, his son, and his wife with the four young people who drove onto the property, a cattle farm on Canada’s Plains.

Boushie and his friends had been drinking, that is for sure. One of them got out of the car and climbed aboard an ATV parked on Stanley’s farm, and tried to start it.  One of them tried to get into a gold pickup truck that belonged to one of Stanley’s neighbors.  He was a part-time mechanic and the truck needed some work. Stanley saw the car approaching and he watched them mess around with the truck and the ATV. He said he was afraid of the intruders, Indians, the other.

Nobody denies that Stanley went inside, grabbed a gun, loaded it with bullets, and, after a tussle, shot Colten Boushie in the head. Stanley said the gun misfired, that his finger was not on the trigger. Firearms experts disagreed. The gun was working properly, and could not have been fired without the trigger being pulled.

I am not a lawyer, and so I do not know all the legal ins-and outs of this case. It is plain to see that the witnesses were not entirely reliable, that both Stanley and Boushie’s companions changed elements of their stories over time. Based on the heavy press coverage in Canada, it seems that there is no way that a jury could have reached absolute certainty about what happened on the Stanley farm with one set of exceptions: Boushie and his friends entered Stanley’s property; they messed around with some of his stuff; Stanley went to get his gun; he fired that weapon three times, and one of those bullets struck Boushie, killing him.

Canadians have spoken much in recent years about “reconciliation,” about coming to terms with the atrocities the country and its provinces have committed upon native peoples. Prime Minister Trudeau has played a leading role in this effort. But when Niigaan Sinclair, a Professor of Native Studies in Manitoba, said that the verdict in the Stanley case was “unbelievable yet believable,” he got to the heart of the issue. Yes, Trudeau sent his warm thoughts and best wishes, his sympathies and his concerns, to Boushie’s family. But how does he expect First Nations peoples to take that seriously after the acquittal of Stanley? What is the point of talking about reconciliation and recovery and hope for a future informed by a thoughtful consideration of the atrocities and violence of the past, when the atrocious behavior and the violence continues?

It is a fair question for policy-makers in the United States, too, who have shown little willingness to talk about this nation’s colonial past.

When unmatched with real action and real results, “reconciliation” seems to involve white people asking native peoples to let them off the hook for the crimes of their ancestors. After this weekend especially, I cannot see any reason for them to do so.  “Reconciliation” can’t just be, “It’s awful what we did to you, and let’s move on.” Rather, it must include, “it’s awful what we still are doing, and let’s talk about what needs to be done to make it stop.”

“Unbelievable, yet believable.”  I get it.  Those who watched the trial hoped for justice in the case of Colten Boushie, but it was a forlorn hope.  It’s a sad but brutal fact: there is little evidence to support any belief that courts will get things right, that they will treat native peoples with justice and humanity.  Rotten to the core.  Ask those who grieve for Jason Pero, or John T. Williams,  or Romeo Wesley or Zachary Bearheels.  Colten Boushie is Canada’s Trayvon Martin, and Gerald Stanley its George Zimmerman.

I have made the case in the past, and it is an unpopular one here, that those of us non-natives who own homes in New York State are the beneficiaries of a systematic program of Indian dispossession.  What Indians lost, white New Yorkers gained. Some are more guilty than others, but we are all complicit.

Sherman Alexie published a poem last week, on nearly the same day that Gerald Stanley’s trial commenced. “Hymn,” he called it, a call to love everything and for the radical hope that accepts as truth that we can feel and act on that love.


So let me ask demanding questions: Will you be

Eyes for the blind? Will you become the feet


For the wounded? Will you protect the poor?

Will you welcome the lost to your shore?


Will you battle the blood thieves

And rescue the powerless from their teeth?


Who will you be? Who will I become

As we gather in this terrible kingdom?


My friends, I’m not quite sure what I should do.

I’m as angry and afraid and disillusioned as you.


But I do know this: I will resist hate. I will resist.

I will stand and sing my love. I will use my fist


To drum and drum my love. I will write and read poems

That offer warmth and shelter of any good home.


I will sing for people who might not sing for me.

I will sing for people who are not my family.


Colten Boushie was the victim of a crime that had its origins long ago. It is historic. The criminals, and all their accomplices in and out of all the years, they remain at large, untroubled, unworried, guilty, and free.

Patterned Acts of Violence

Brooke Crews butchered Savanna Greywind.  Crews wanted a baby, and her young neighbor was eight months pregnant.  On the night of 17 August last year she lured Greywind into her home. While Savanna was still alive, and passing in and out of consciousness, she cut the child from her womb. When Crews’ boyfriend arrived, she presented him with the baby.  “This is our baby,” she reportedly said. “This is our family.” Together, they cleaned up the blood. Together they disposed of Savanna’s clothing. And, together, they wrapped her body in plastic sheeting and dumped of it in the river, where kayakers found it sometime later.

JUST OVER A YEAR BEFORE Savanna Greywind’s murder, another twenty-two year old, Colten Boushie, set out from his reserve west of Saskatoon. The car Colten and his friends were riding in got a flat tire, and the guys pulled into the farm of Gerald Stanley.  Boushie and his friends had been drinking.  They may have committed some petty thefts, though the testimony is confused.  Young guys, engaging in mischief.  Committing some minor crimes.  (If you were ever a young adult, you probably have done this sort of stuff, too). But, here, at Stanley’s place, they seem to have wanted nothing more than help fixing a flat tire.  What happened next is a matter of dispute. Stanley said that the 70-year-old handgun he wielded in order to scare the young men off misfired. Others that he carried out an act of vigilante justice against a group of young men he feared had come to rob him.  And others still believed that Stanley was an Indian-hating westerner from the Canadian Plains.  Whichever, the case, Colten Boushie, who was seated in the vehicle’s front seat, died from a gunshot wound to the head.  The bullet was fired by Stanley, from his old gun.

Last week, Savanna Greywind’s killer was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Stanley’s trial for the murder of Colten Boushie began last week. Both stories struck me as so evocative of the long and troubled history that I teach.  Both stories scream with the echoes of the past.

The news is increasingly filled with stories of missing and murdered indigenous women and children.  In response to Greywind’s murder, North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp has introduced “Savanna’s Law,” which will “help address crisis of missing and murdered Native American women.”  Specifically, the act would

  • Improve tribal access to certain federal crime information databases. The bill would update the data fields to be more relevant to Native Americans, and mandate that the Attorney General consult with Tribes on how to further improve these databases and their access to them. The Attorney General would then submit a report to Congress on how the U.S. Department of Justice plans to implement the suggestions and resolve the outstanding barriers Tribes face in acquiring full access to these databases.
  • Require the Attorney General, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Health and Human Services to solicit recommendations from Tribes on improved access to local, regional, state, and federal crime information databases and criminal justice information systems during the annual consultations mandated under the Violence Against Women Act.
  • Create standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans. These protocols would take place in consultation with Tribes, which would include guidance on inter-jurisdictional cooperation among tribal, federal, state, and local law enforcement.
  • Require an annual report to Congress with data. The report would include statistics on missing and murdered Native women, since there is little data on this problem and there isn’t a central location for keeping that information. The report would also include recommendations on how to improve data collection.

I wish Heitkamp well. I hope her legislation passes, and I hope it helps.  It mainly aims at attempting to improve information about a problem that all acknowledge is poorly understood.  That is a good thing, but it seems to me it is at best a half-measure. So much more than information is needed.

Heitkamp’s proposed piece of legislation addresses nonetheless deep and systemic problems that cut to the core of the Native American experience in North America.  Native American women have always been objects of white violence.  Long ago, for instance,  George Percy told the story of how he ordered the Queen of Paspahegh stabbed to death after his men had earlier entertained themselves by throwing her children from the boat and shooting out their brains in the water.  Edward Moseley, that mercenary who sold his services to the Puritan Saints during King Philip’s War, boasted about how he unleashed his war dogs on an Algonquian captive his men had taken.  The dogs, Moseley noted, tore her to shreds. The mutilation of women’s bodies by American soldiers at Sand Creek: that, too, is part of a long, long story.  Sexual violence rests at the core of this history and it continues: along the Canadian Highway of Tears and, if the spotty records are correct, on reservations across America.  And in Fargo.

Brooke Crews stole Savanna Greywind’s baby.  There is a long history of white clergymen, government officials, military officers, and bumbling do-gooders who have scooped up Native American children.  Canada, much more than the United States, has started a discussion of the legacy of residential schools and the problems that continue to plague them. European colonizers and their colonial heirs long have collected the orphans whose parents they killed, sold them into slavery, bound them into servitude, and still, today, distribute them to white families in some states through broken and racist foster care systems.

Colten Boushie’s story, too, has so many ties to a vicious and violent past, for white people, throughout the history of this continent, have murdered native people. That reality runs through every book I have written, including Native America: Arthur Peach, the killer of a Narragansett messenger, Northern Neck racists who murdered Susquehannocks; Pennsylvania Frontiersmen who murdered Senecas with impunity, leading Federalist Timothy Pickering to lament that, for most white people living in close contact with native peoples, killing an Indian was no crime at all. Read the annual reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:  they are full of complaints from federal policy makers who felt powerless to stop the violence meted out on Indians by the white frontier population.  It was frontier whites, American officials understood so well, who were responsible for frontier violence.  Indians were usually victims.

You cannot miss this in the documents. It is all there. It is always there.  And still it goes on.  The police treated Boushie’s body with a callousness they would not use for white crime victims. And the police, when they came to Boushie’s house to tell his mother and father that their son had died, searched the house.  They came in with guns drawn. They treated Mrs. Boushie with disrespect and cruelty.  If the Boushies’ account is accurate, the Canadian police behaved like racist thugs.  It is a heart-breaking tale that should shame police officials in Saskatchewan.


GREYWIND’S MURDER has provoked discussion and legislation in the halls of Congress to address a problem that native peoples have talked about for generations, but that Congress is only now starting to act upon.  Boushie’s murder has caused deep-seated racial tensions to surface and has brought into the open, his grieving friends and families say, the sorts of racism and violence First Nations people face every day.  The trial is receiving heavy coverage in Canada, where Boushie is being described as the “Rodney King of Canada.”  Maybe something good will come from airing out these issues.  That is what some hopeful people say.  I am doubtful, because this violence has gone on forever.  The headlines in the newspapers point out that the case has caused racial fears to increase, and that white people, one story said, are fearful of retribution. White people are worried.  Fear of the other.  Fear of the marginalized. Fear of the neighbors whose ancestral homelands you now occupy. I heard the expression of that fear when I lived in Montana: from my landlord, a feisty old woman who would not rent to Crows because, she said, if you let one in, soon you would have the whole tribe; from my students who, in unguarded moments, embraced baldly racist stereotypes; to the angry ranchers who extracted their livelihood from what had once been Crow land, and who refused to place themselves voluntarily under the authority of tribal officials. I hear it in small-town New York, too, where one can still see the faded “Upstate Citizens for Equality” sign along the sides of roads throughout the Finger Lakes.

We are historians.  Many of us have heard the old line, that if we do not learn from the past we will repeat our mistakes.  We study continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures.  And, in Native American history, it is the continuities that stand out: with a Secretary of the Interior who views anything he cannot kill as something he might drill, and who views nothing as sacred save for his own conservative evangelicalism; with violence continuing across the continent; with a hostile legal system assaulting native nationhood; and with a Chief Executive whose infantile racism makes clear what many of us have long argued: this is a deeply racist country, and many of us continue to benefit from that systemic injustice.  We have numerous examples of how difficult it will be to achieve meaningful change.  That is realistic, not pessimistic.

My students are shocked when they read about stories like those of Savanna Greywind and Colten Boushie, and even more so when I take the time to place them in the context of a much larger, and much more violent, history than they have ever been taught. They seem empowered, some of them, and determined to “do something.”  Others, they sense that the obstacles are formidable. And so on we go, teaching and writing, fighting against the dark belief that things will not get better. We choose the stories we want to tell.  We must remember that.

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.


As screwed up as is our political system, with a President pouting because the leader of Korea called him “old,” and with Republicans slowly slouching towards the position that their party ought not to support the Senate candidacy of a constitutional illiterate who once liked to fondle 8th-graders, perhaps it is too much for me to hope that we might come together around one, simple premise, the urgency of which was underscored in this weekend’s news: that heavily-armed, militarized law enforcement agencies need to stop gunning down children.

Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ, how freaking hard it is to not kill kids?

You may have seen the story here or here.  Maybe stories like these have become so common that they no longer shock.  Jason Pero, a 14-year old eighth-grader, gunned down by a deputy sheriff.  The Wisconsin Department of Justice released preliminary findings yesterday:

“The Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), at the request of the Ashland County Sheriff’s Office, has been investigating an officer involved death (OID) that took place on November 8, 2017 in Odanah, Wis., which is located on the Bad River Reservation.

The Ashland County Emergency Communications Center received a 911 call reporting a male subject walking on Maple Street carrying a knife. Ashland County Sheriff’s Deputy Brock Mrdjenovich responded to the scene and encountered a 5’9”, 300 pound male subject who fit the description given by the 911 caller. The subject was later identified as 14-year-old Jason Ike Pero. Pero approached Deputy Mrdjenovich with a large butcher knife and he refused numerous commands to drop the weapon. On two occasions, Pero lunged at the deputy while the deputy was attempting to retreat. Deputy Mrdjenovich fired his service weapon at Pero, striking him twice. Life-saving measures were initiated however, Pero was pronounced dead at Memorial Medical Center in Ashland. DCI has determined Jason Pero was the same person that called 911 reporting a man with a knife, giving his own physical description. Initial information indicates that Pero had been despondent over the few days leading up to the incident and evidence from a search warrant executed on Pero’s bedroom supports that information.

Deputy Mrdjenovich has been interviewed by DOJ and is on paid administrative leave in accordance with Ashland County Sheriff’s Office’s policy. Deputy Mrdjenovich has worked for the Ashland County Sheriff’s Office for approximately one year.

The family members of Jason Pero have been offered victim witness services by the DOJ Office of Crime Victim Services.

The Ashland County District Attorney’s office will receive the written reports following the conclusion of the investigation. DCI aims to turn over all OID investigative reports to the prosecutor within 30 days of the incident.

The Wisconsin DOJ-led investigation of this incident has been a collaborative effort between DCI, the Wisconsin State Patrol, and the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory. The Ashland County Sheriff’s Office has been fully cooperating with DCI during this investigation.

Jason was a big boy, according to the report, and if he lunged at a deputy that officer might have had reason to be alarmed. But I read that initial statement–the warrant to search a dead child’s room, the quick determination about the identity of the 911 caller, the effort to portray this as a “suicide by cop” case–as defensive measures by law enforcement officials  attempting to justify a deputy’s violent actions, an attempt to account for what Jason’s mother believes is murder.  But even if this report is correct, and I think we all have reason to be suspicious until we learn otherwise, Jason still did not deserve a bullet through the heart.  There were ways this could have been contained.  There were ways this could have been prevented.

Look, at the end of the day I do not care if Jason had a knife. If a handful of deputies cannot take care of a child with a knife through non-lethal means, then they need to find something else to do.  I am not a cop, obviously. But I have kids. Sometimes they do stupid things.  Anyone who has been a teenager or spent time with a teenager knows that their highs can be high and their lows very low. They get depressed and they get despondent.  Sometimes they need help. Jason Pero may have been one of them. Hell, when I was a kid I had moods, too, and I mouthed off to the cops in my comfortable suburb.  But we were white kids, and kids like us do not get killed by police.  I no longer tell my own children, these beautiful young people of mixed-racial heritage, to view the police as their friends. I cannot do it anymore.  I tell them to be careful.  To watch themselves.  To be afraid, because they will hurt you and they will get away with it.

I am not a cop, but I am a historian, so I look at events like the killing of Justin through a very long lens. I do not know much about the specifics beyond what I have read, and I am not familiar with the local history of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa.  I do not know the context. But I am going to watch this case and try to learn more.  And I will keep reading history.  And I know, from my own research and reading, of too many stories where native peoples were gunned down for looking the wrong way at white people in positions of authority.  Murdered for merely existing.  It does not happen as much as it did, say, in the 1790s in the western parts of New York State and northern Pennsylvania, or in Crow Country in the late 19th century–stories you read in Native America. Of course.  But It Is Still Happening. Nobody can deny it. And those of us who study this history, in Canada and in the United States, are talking about it more and more.

The police exist to keep order, and to protect the lives, liberties, and property of white people. You do not have to read a lot of history to know that this is so.  Because white Americans too often view peoples of color and their communities as the locus for criminality in the United States, and they view native communities as centers of dysfunction, desperation, crime, and lawlessness, they react fiercely to any perceived threat.  Even peoples of color away from these communities–on football fields and on college campuses, for instance–are shouted down, cast as menacing or as disloyal, and placed in the position of having to insist that their Black Lives and Native Lives Matter.

It is an old story, and sometimes it wears me down.  Some of my teaching time is spent telling students that it does not have to be this way, that we need not remain prisoners to a shameful past.  But sometimes those words ring hollow.  That is how I feel now.  I understand why parents tell their children to fear the police.  I struggle to suppress my deep revulsion when I see three police cars pulled up behind the vehicle driven by an African-American man in my comfortable Rochester suburb.  The rot runs deep. The killing needs to stop.  Militarized and well-armed law enforcement agencies, I see them in my town where the local police blotter reports on crimes as serious as an occasional broken car window and a stolen I-pod or smashed Jack-O-Lantern.  Everywhere, I sense, police see people of color as a threat, including comfortable Brighton, New York.  What happened in Wisconsin last week can happen anywhere a person of color walks down a street. And from Tamir Rice to Justin Piro, and many others who have not come to mind as I write this post, all I can say is that the police must stop murdering children.