Tag Archives: Reservations

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.

On Montana, Foster Care, and Reservation Basketball

A couple of news stories centered on Montana caught my attention this past week.  The Missoulian ran a series of well-reported stories on the state’s foster care system, Addicted and Expecting: How Montana’s Lack of Resources Impacts Mothers and their Children.  Montana, a state that is struggling like many others with the opioid crisis, has become the “child removal capital of the United States.” This at a time when research on best practices suggests that adequately funded and accessible drug treatment programs for troubled parents produces better outcomes than placing their children in a foster care system characterized by neglect, abuse, and poor conditions.

The history of state foster care systems and Native American children is a distressing one, and the problems continue, most notoriously in South Dakota. Steven Pevar, whose ACLU handbook I use in my American Indian Law course, has written extensively about the problem. In Native America, I write about this history, and the events that led to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. It is a subject that catches the attention of my students, and I have written on this blog about continued assaults from the political right on the ICWA. Image result for montana indian reservations

The Missoulian devoted one article in the series to conditions on reservations where drug treatment programs are in especially short supply. The figures presented by Lucy Tompkins, who reported this piece for the paper, are staggering.  In Browning, way up in the northwestern corner of the state on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, “44 percent of pregnant women tested positive for opioid use, according to a 2017 health assessment by the Blackfeet Tribal Health Department and Boston Medical Center.” (The full report is available here).

Furthermore, in Montana’s Lake County, which includes part of the Flathead Indian Reservation, almost half of the infants born “were at risk for neonatal abstinence syndrome, the medical term for a dangerous set of withdrawal symptoms in drug-dependent infants including tremors, convulsions, and high-pitched crying.” Add to this that far fewer Native American women receive pre-natal care during the first trimester of their pregnancies than non-native women, and you have the ingredients for significant crisis in Montana’s native communities.

It is easy to provide students with facts and figures illustrating economic, social, and health disparities in native and non-native communities. One must be careful about doing this in order to avoid the sort of “sympathy porn” produced by “journalists” like Dianne Sawyer a couple of years back. (The reservation students’ response to Sawyer’s piece is fantastically effective: If you have not seen it, you can watch it here).  It is always worth mentioning to our students what native nations and native peoples are doing on their own to construct solutions to the challenges they face and, indeed, that the problems reservations face may be different in degree but not necessarily in kind from those facing many small towns and rural areas in the United States.

The Washington Post ran a story that offers a moving depiction of reservation life that avoids the cliches and stereotypes and pitfalls into which Dianne Sawyer blissfully stumbled. It’s a profile of Mya Fourstar, a talented fifteen-year-old basketball player at Frazer on the Fort Peck Reservation in the northeastern part of the state. Fourstar wants to play college basketball, either Division I at Gonzaga or somewhere else, but it’s tough both on and off the court.  It is a story students will appreciate, I believe, as they confront their own challenges.

Reservation basketball in Montana is huge. I learned that during the four years I lived in Billings. It was covered on the local television news, and in the pages of the Billings Gazette.  It was an exciting, run-and-gun style of basketball, with some incredibly talented players. But it was difficult to recruit these kids to play in college. “They won’t leave home,” I remember a guy in the athletics department at the college where I taught saying.  Given the treatment native students faced on my campus, I did not find this surprising at all, though I was then only beginning to grasp the complexity of the challenges these young people faced.

Reservation basketball offers a revealing and, for students, an interesting way to teach about conditions on reservations in the United States, a way to humanize a story that too often is phrased in generalities and statistics that provide by their nature a limited perspective. There is a wealth of material out there for students to read, watch, and think about. There is this CNN story about basketball on the Fort Belknap Reservation, for instance, and you will find many more if you look; news stories like this and this and this and this and this and this, from the now defunct Indian Country Today Media Network, that capture something of the strong feelings reservation basketball can generate; blog posts like this that describe the importance of reservation basketball and others that provide fascinating historical background.  And, of course, there is Larry Colton’s book on Crow basketball.

There are, I suppose, as many ways to teach non-Indian students about life in Indian country as there are college professors teaching the subject.  What we have to do as instructors, in addition to imparting knowledge and information, is break down and dismantle the stereotypes and uncritical assumptions that serve as the lenses our students look through as they read and write and learn about Indians.  There is plenty of bad news out there, and so many of the images to which students are exposed highlight themes of suffering, tragedy, and inevitability.   It is worth talking about how limited most discussion of Native American issues actually is.  Reservation basketball, like lacrosse in Haudenosaunee communities in New York and Canada, allows a window into a world that is not nearly as remote as our students are led to believe.