Building on Standing Rock, Native Americans Lead the Way at the People’s Climate March

This article first appeared on Rural America In These Times in May 2017.

Indigenous demonstrators from numerous tribes step out at the head of the People’s Climate March on Saturday, April 29, 2017, in Washington, D.C.   (Photo: Stephanie Woodard)

“We are at a major movement moment,” says Judith LeBlanc, a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma and director of the Native Organizers Alliance (NOA), which helps indigenous advocacy groups build their organizations and capacity. As LeBlanc watched tribal members from around the country gather near the U.S. Capitol to lead the April 29 People’s Climate March, she credited the past year’s Standing Rock demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline for bringing awareness to indigenous struggles and the continued threats to land and water by a range of industries.
“Standing Rock has been the largest, longest continuous protest in U.S. history,” says LeBlanc. As a result, she says, a network of tribal leaders and grassroots people and groups have coalesced around the issue of climate justice. “We have the land base, the people, the traditional knowledge and the sovereignty that will ground climate action for the twenty-first century. The power of our beliefs and history can be a guide for all people.” This is already happening, she adds, recalling that Standing Rock has been not just about the concerns of that one reservation but about everyone whose water is endangered by building an oil pipeline across the Missouri River.
Winfield Wounded Eye, a Northern Cheyenne tribe member living in Chicago, performs the traditional Grass Dance at the People’s Climate March, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Stephanie Woodard)
The attention that the Standing Rock actions generated led to two Native groups being included in planning for the 2017 climate march, says LeBlanc—NOA and the Indigenous Environmental Network, which was prominent in the Standing Rock anti-pipeline actions. Eventually, this connection led to the placement of tribal participants at the head of the D.C. procession, where they led the 150,000-person strong march. A similar number of participants took to the streets in marches around the country and the globe.
In Washington, Indian humor leavened the seriousness of the occasion and the reminders of the horrific environmental devastation wreaked on vulnerable indigenous communities. A covered wagon labeled “Colonialism” and pierced with arrows rolled along behind tribal marchers carrying signs declaring “Honor the Treaties,” “Keep It In the Ground” and “Mni Wiconi” (Lakota for “water is life”). Miguel Muñiz, a member of a traditional Aztec-dance troupe who hailed from Mexico City, explains: “As indigenous people, we know about resilience as well as resistance. We’ve been doing that forever.” He paused. “Well…since 1492.”
In addition to the larger issues of climate change and climate justice, Sioux people gathered in D.C. had an immediate problem on their minds. According to Rosebud Sioux leader OJ Semans, an official of the national inter-tribal group, Coalition of Large Tribes, dozens of Sioux were marching to protest efforts to revive the Keystone XL pipeline, which is slated to cross their territory on its way to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The line would transport the dangerous, corrosive tar-sands oil whose extraction has devastated Canadian tribal lands and turned stretches of Canada’s boreal forest into moonscapes of open-pit mines and wastewater lakes.
Semans called the pipeline a “zombie”—something the tribes had helped defeat during President Obama’s administration, only to have it rise again, thanks to the new administration and its fondness for industry-friendly executive orders and moribund energy sources.
Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a Cheyenne River Sioux tribe member and his people’s 19th-Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, attends the People's Climate March. (Photo: Stephanie Woodard) 
The People’s Climate March took place at a critical moment for the planet, says Faith Gemmill, an executive of the Alaska grassroots coalition REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands). In a pre-march event earlier in the day in Washington, Gemmill decried a new presidential executive order that aims to resume offshore oil drilling, including in the highly sensitive Arctic ecosystem. She told the gathered crowd, “We need to shift the energy paradigm now for humanity to survive.”
Faith Spotted Eagle, of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, in South Dakota, and Melina Laboucan-Massimo, of the Lubican Cree First Nation, in Alberta, Canada, say their own communities have already begun the transition to green energy. In addition, Spotted Eagle told Rural America In These Timesseven Sioux tribes in South Dakota are collaborating on Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) Power Authority. A wind-energy project, it is on track to become one of the country’s largest, with the ability to provide electricity regionally as well as to the member tribes.
After the march, Muñiz sat in a bus stop on Constitution Avenue, near the Washington Monument, with his orange-and-brown-feathered Aztec-dance headdress bundled up beside him. He said he had traveled to join the marchers from his current home in the D.C. suburbs because he mourned the loss of progress on climate change since “the person currently in charge” had been inaugurated. “I felt we were already 50 years behind,” said Muñiz. “Now, things will get worse.”
Muñiz recalled the term “tree-hugger,” which is often used as a putdown. He had a different perspective. “We should all be tree-huggers,” he said. “We have to take care of Mother Earth. She’s the only one we have.”
Like offerings to an angry god: After the march, participants placed their signs on the steps of the gargantuan stone edifice that houses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo: Stephanie Woodard)

Text and photos c. Stephanie Woodard.

The Never-Ending Indian Wars

The world has been shocked by North Dakota’s violent, militarized reaction to 
the oil pipeline resistance at Standing Rock. For the better part of a year, people watched via social media, then increasingly with conventional media, as heavily armed law enforcement officers and private security agents used dogs, rubber bullets, mace, tear gas, batons, and water cannons deployed in sub-freezing temperatures to attack unarmed civilians. 

A volunteer medical team of doctors, nurses, EMTs, homeopathic physicians, herbalists and others cared for the many hundreds of injured. More than 100 were hospitalized, and more than 700 were arrested as they protested the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Standing Rock may have revealed this violence to a new generation of observers, but for Native people, the brutality is nothing new, says Wendsler Nosie Sr., San Carlos Apache leader of Apache Stronghold, a group that seeks to prevent mining from obliterating Oak Flat, a tribal sacred site. “Federal and state involvement with us has always been military, from the days when we Native people were prisoners of war until this very day,” says Nosie.

The force used against unarmed civilians was extreme, even by military wartime standards. The concussion grenades that have allegedly caused some of the most serious wounds in North Dakota were banned in Iraq, U.S. Army veteran Griz Grzywa said an interview at Standing Rock. Grzywa served as a Ranger for 15 years, including one tour of duty in Somalia and three tours in Iraq. He went to Standing Rock in December 2016 to help shield the demonstrators from harm. “They are using a level of force against women and children here that our military would hesitate to use,” he said.

The second half of the 20th century saw many examples of state-sanctioned violence toward Natives. During the 1960s and 1970s, unarmed members of Northwest tribes were shot at, clubbed, gassed, and arrested—notably at Frank’s Landing, in Washington state—while seeking recognition of treaty-guaranteed fishing rights. For decades, law enforcement officers have roughed up and arrested protesters from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as they try to shut down the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska. With about a dozen residents, the town exists almost exclusively to bootleg alcohol onto the dry reservation, setting off a cascade of physical and social ills and crime.

Just under 10 years ago, South Dakota sent its entire on-call contingent of highway patrol to help local police make arrests on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. Tribal members and others were demonstrating peacefully against a concentrated animal feeding operation that was being constructed on their homeland against their wishes. In Montana in 2012, after Northern Cheyenne spiritual teacher Mark Wandering became lead plaintiff in a voting-rights lawsuit, police traffic stops of Native people in the area spiked.

Natives are not just stopped by police; they are killed by law enforcement at a higher rate than any other group, according to Mike Males, senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. In April 2016, Claremont Graduate University scholars Roger Chin, Jean Schroedel, and Lily Rowen announced research showing that in six states—Mississippi, South Dakota, Idaho, Washington, Alaska, and North Dakota—death rates for Native Americans were higher than for any other group. 

“The violence toward us is embedded in our history,” says Nosie. “When we started the Oak Flat encampment, right away military-type planes began flying overhead.” 

Meanwhile, both houses of the North Dakota legislature have passed bills that make it easy to redefine a protest as a riot, increase criminal penalties for ”rioting,” and—astonishingly—allow ordinary citizens to injure or even kill protesters. If the last measure is signed into law, motorists who “negligently” hurt or kill anyone obstructing traffic “would not be held liable for any damages.” Bill co-sponsors were frank about it being a response to constituents who oppose the anti-DAPL movement.

North Dakota civil rights attorney and former U.S. attorney Tim Purdon, of the firm Robins Kaplan, calls the bill a “new low” that ”sends a message that we are going to dehumanize those with whom we disagree.” Purdon says the bill also has unintended consequences, since it allows anyone driving negligently—while drunk or texting, for example—to kill or maim.

All of these measures are meant to send a message, said Nosie: “We did it to you before, and we can do it again.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph at top of medics' tent at Standing Rock in December 2016 c. Joseph Zummo; photograph at bottom of the aftermath of the Wounded Knee massacre, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, December 1890.

Voices from the Movement for Native Lives

This story first appeared on In These Times magazine's website in October 2016. 

As reported in “The Police Killings No One Is Talking About,” Native Americans are shot by police, or die in custody, at the highest rate of any group. Yet the general public has almost no awareness of this. Or, as Darleen Tareeq (above, second from right), whose fiancé Philip Quinn of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe was shot and killed by police in September 2015, puts it, “Everyone is cool with it.”

In a recently released study of this national blind spot, Claremont Graduate University researchers Roger Chin, Jean Schroedel and Lily Rowen agree, writing that the minimal coverage of the issue indicates that Native people are ignored and their issues devalued.
As Black Lives Matter, Idle No More and other social justice movements have proliferated, “Native Lives Matter” has been taken up as a rallying cry by Natives grieving the loss of loved ones to police violence, as well as those calling attention to numerous other injustices—such as the routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline so as to imperil the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s water source, which the tribe opposes.

Here are five advocates who devote their time and energy to promoting the concept that Native Lives Matter.
Troy Amlee, or Akicita Sunka-Wakan Ska (White Horse Soldier), shown left, is a hip-hop and dubstep musician from the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes. He and JR Bobick, a French Canadian descendant from St. Paul, Minn.—both activists with Idle No More Twin Cities—were outraged by the December 2013 police-shooting death of Cheyenne-Arapaho teen Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket. Together, they posted on Idle No More’s pages, then created the Native Lives Matter Facebook page in 2014 to document and bring awareness to the deaths.
Darleen Tareeq, of White Earth and Leech Lake Ojibwe heritage, was interviewed a year to the day after police shot and killed her fiancé, Philip Quinn. The couple are shown right with their newborn daughter. Before getting on the telephone with In These Times, she, Amlee and Bobick attended a vigil for Quinn. The event included a dinner, honor songs, speeches by Quinn’s family and friends, fireworks and a traditional giveaway of gifts from the family to supporters. “It was a beautiful night,” says Tareeq.
Attorney Chase Iron Eyes, left, helped raise the movement’s profile by hosting a Native Lives Matter rally in Rapid City, S.D., in December 2014 and penning a report on the subject for the Lakota People’s Law Project in 2015. A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Iron Eyes has run for Congress from North Dakota and been a leader of the NoDAPL movement.
In early 2015, Marlee Kanosh, of the Paiute Tribe of Utah, right, began administering the Facebook page Native Lives Taken By Police. The loss of her brother Corey in a 2012 police shooting drew her to the online community of people suffering similar tragedies, and what she describes as “a whole world of people going through the same thing for a very long time.”
Chase: It’s a movement for reclaiming our inherent spiritual dignity. Native Lives Matter is a healing and a way to move beyond what has been imposed on us for 500 years—since the arrival of Europeans. Black Lives Matter brought attention to police brutality and institutional racism, and we were very aware of that when we coined our version of the term. We want Native Lives Matter understood as expansive—including improvement in many quality-of-life issues that affect our communities, in addition to police shootings specifically.  As such, it’s a comprehensive call to action for social justice reform.
JR (shown right): The mainstream media doesn’t follow Native issues, so we base the content of our Facebook page, Native Lives Matter, on what our community wants, not on what we want as organizers. As a result of listening to the people, we have covered many subjects in addition to police brutality. The issues relate to each other. This approach has brought the page nearly 100,000 “Likes” so far. 
Troy: We have also tried to make our page a reliable source for news about the Dakota Access Pipeline, a big concern for Native people these days. As a group, we support positive issues and projects. We advocate for healthy eating and living, encourage planting of backyard gardens and hold clothing drives. We are showing up for the people.
Marlee: As administrator for the Facebook page Native Lives Taken By Police, I focus on police brutality. My posts are also very personal. In addition to research, I talk to the families, find out who the victims really were and get permission to use their photographs and other material. I have met some of the families, including Daniel Covarrubias’s mother and sister at Rise Up October in New York City in 2015. [As reported in In These Times, Lakewood, Wash., police shot and killed Covarrubias earlier that year.]
Marlee: My brother Corey was shot and killed [by police] in 2012 in Millard County, Utah. There are so many questions about his death. It doesn’t add up. The medical examiner said no major organs or veins were hit, so the shots weren’t immediately fatal. It seems that he was just allowed to die. [Kanosh reportedly did not receive care after he was shot, but rather lay facedown in the dirt until morning, when his mother was notified he was dead.] Why was Corey not given medical aid? Isn’t there a law requiring this? We are citizens of this country, and we have rights. We feel lied to and betrayed. I didn’t know how to deal with this other than to use my feelings, my pain and my hurt, to be helpful—to share others’ stories. I know how the families feel when this happens.  
Chase: In December 2014, friends and I organized a rally in Rapid City to make clear the contrast between what Natives contribute to the local economy and what we suffer. We were attending the Lakota Invitational Basketball Tournament, which brings a significant amount of money to Rapid City. In addition, the nearby Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations have few businesses, so money from local Native residents and people living on the reservations flows directly to Rapid City business owners throughout the year. And you know the statistics—just about every quality-of-life indicator for Native people­ is very bad. We suffer disproportionate incarceration, and our children are taken from their families and placed in foster care far more often than non-Native children.
A local man named Allen Locke, who is Lakota, shown below, happened to attend the rally. The next day was the championship game. I went to buy Christmas gifts, and when I returned to the tournament, everyone’s Facebook timelines were going crazy with the information that cops had shot someone in a development called Lakota Homes.
Some of us went over and learned it was Allen. His family asked us for help dealing with the police and the media. We said, “Yeah, absolutely,” and hung out to make sure they had what they needed. After that, we went to the Lakota People’s Law Project office in Rapid City, which became the base camp where we held press conferences, produced literature and got information out. I wanted to document what was occurring and wrote the report “Native Lives Matter.”
Troy: Five years ago, a lot of tokala warriors [members of a traditional warrior society] attended the funeral of my uncle Beau Little Sky, who was in AIM, the American Indian Movement. I was 19 at the time and observed that they had a consciousness about them. I was curious. I joined AIM and did homeless feeds and cop-watch patrols, which involved going around Minneapolis/St. Paul with a police scanner and listening for minority-related calls. Through cop-watching, I got involved with Occupy Minnesota and Idle No More Twin Cities. The Native Lives Matter page JR and I put together now has nine admins in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Colorado.
Darleen: Today is the one-year anniversary of the day my baby’s father was murdered by police. Marking that anniversary is an Ojibwe tradition, which we did at Indian Mounds, an ancient burial mound in St. Paul. There was a lot of support. Families of other victims, such as Marcus Golden, also killed in 2015, joined us. His dad is indigenous, and his mom is African American. Family members of Jamar Clark, an African-American man shot last fall, were there as well. I got involved in this grassroots Native Lives Matter group because I wanted to be part of listening to and protecting the people. Native people nationwide are being murdered at a higher rate than other people. We have been living a silent, comfortable genocide. Everyone is cool with it—us dying and our cultures being taken away. 
Chase: Everywhere there are reservation bordertowns or large Indian populations, there is tension—from Oklahoma and states surrounding the Navajo Nation to rural areas of Montana and Minnesota. As the Native Lives Matter idea has grown, it has also come to include cities like L.A. and Denver. Natives everywhere have taken it over in ways that let them get out their own message.
Marlee: Without the Internet and social media, each of us would be talking to small communities. With online connections, we can talk to the larger community.
Chase: Indians are tribal people. There are few degrees of separation between any of us. We’re also highly involved Internet users, with the ability to go viral even though we’re a small percentage of the U.S. population. Tweets about opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline were trending high on Twitter long before there was any mainstream media coverage, long before elected officials were talking about it. They live in a world that doesn’t exist anymore, a world where you had to get a TV network to cover you. That’s old school.
Marlee: I have so many dreams. Every night after I do a story for the page, I dream about it. Today, opening up the page and seeing all the stories there overwhelmed me. I have done about 80 and have a couple of additional names to get to as well. I know there are even more. Being helpful makes me feel better, though. I also do a lot of praying and meditating.
JR: Our Native Lives Matter page is about helping build a community.
Marlee: Through Native Lives Taken By Police, I want to help people keep their family member’s story alive. It has been important for my own family to do this, so I am doing what I can for others.
Chase: It is painfully clear that some people can’t expect justice. We Native people want to stop being ignored. In our eyes, Allen Locke gave his life for that.

The Spirit of Standing Rock Is On the Move

This article first appeared in Yes! magazine in January 2017. It covers not just Standing Rock, but additional places where Native people and their allies are calling out environmental crises that will impact all of us. The rest of the article is here.

Western Shoshone Joe Holley and grandson in a sacred site the tribe is fighting to protect from the ravages of gold mining

Sometime last year, the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota became not just a physical location but an iconic challenge to the national conscience. Like the Selma civil rights marches in 1965 or the Frank’s Landing tribal fishing rights demonstrations in 1970, Standing Rock’s water protectors, as they call themselves, transformed ideas of advocacy and resistance. They built coalitions across movements for tribal sovereignty, defense of natural resources, resistance to expanding energy infrastructure, and cultural survival. They showed the world a culture grounded in stewardship and connection to the earth. 

Standing Rock, December 2016
The resistance that persisted even through the cold and dark of the North Dakota winter, with ongoing injuries and arrests, shows how difficult, dangerous, and uncertain it can be to speak truth to power.

Now the spirit of Standing Rock is on the move.

Its Native-led, youth-driven expertise is extending outward to help other communities protect their land and resources. In Texas, Frankie Orona, from the Borrado, Chumash, and Tongva people, is leading actions against the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, which will carry fracked gas across Texas and into Mexico, if completed. For months, he and others have danced, prayed, and sang in the path of the line. Recently, they were arrested after locking themselves to construction equipment. In December 2016, after consulting with the Indigenous Environmental Network, which was central to organizing the Standing Rock resistance, Orona’s group established a camp and built a Native/non-Native support system, similar to Standing Rock’s, with backing from local environmentalists and ranchers. One rancher is hosting the camp on her property.

Arvol Looking Horse speaks to the press, Standing Rock, December  2016
Standing Rock has also been evoked in Florida and New Jersey, where Natives and non-Natives have united to object to the Sabal and Pilgrim pipelines, respectively. In Florida, four camps were recently established to protest the Sabal line, and on January 6, Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network went live on Facebook to urge Standing Rock water protectors to go support these other fights.

Elsewhere, Native people are standing up for mountains. In Hawai‘i, conflict rages over placing another telescope on the holy peak Mauna Kea. Prayer gatherings, blockades, arrests, declarations of Native self-determination, and a lawsuit have blocked the project so far. In Arizona, longtime protests have also sought to roll back desecration of Mount Graham, where a telescope mars the sacred summit, and the San Francisco Peaks, contaminated by wastewater that a ski area uses for snow-making. 

Michigan tribes are warning of a potential nationwide disaster in the making—old, crumbling pipelines, including a 63-year-old mussel-encrusted one that passes through the Great Lakes, which hold one-fifth of the planet's entire surface freshwater supply. 

Certainly the Standing Rock campaign has inspired wider interest in Native struggles, agrees Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance and member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. “People everywhere are talking about Standing Rock, which has magnified the reality of other situations like it,” says LeBlanc. She calls the awareness a “Flint moment” for Indian Country.

Gold mine in a Western Shoshone sacred site
And she is optimistic. LeBlanc notes that tribal struggles are ever more successful: “Stopping drilling in the Arctic and a giant coal export terminal in the Northwest, canceling oil and gas leases in a Blackfeet cultural landscape—these successes have been Native-led,” LeBlanc says. 

As Shoshone-Bannock professor and pundit Mark Trahant has pointed out in Yes! magazine, the end of these stories is no longer “inevitable,” with Native communities always losing to outside interests.

Tribal advocacy has helped protect more places in recent weeks. In Colorado, the Piñon Pipeline will not go forward, the company that was planning to build it has announced. In the last weeks of President Obama’s term, he protected the ancient spiritual places and magnificent scenery in southern Nevada as the nearly-300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument. He did the same for 1.35 million acres in southern Utah, now the Bear Ears National Monument. Notably, at Bear Ears indigenous people will contribute to ongoing management decisions. Though state and congressional officials have said they will fight both monument designations, such actions are difficult to unwind.

“The United States needs us Native people,” says Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former San Carlos Apache tribal chairman and leader of Apache Stronghold, a group formed to protect a sacred landscape in Arizona. “Without us taking the lead on these issues, there would be chaos. As a country, we have to choose a better way of being.”

Native-led campaigns take place in courtrooms, legislatures, and other government chambers. They also occur during face-offs on the prairie, desert, and tundra. “So far, we haven’t had to stand in front of bulldozers,” says Kimberly Williams, Curyung tribal member and director of an Alaska Native group seeking to protect the massive Bristol Bay salmon fishery from a proposed mine. “But I’m ready to.”

“What we learned at Standing Rock is the power of unity,” says Orona. “Hundreds of indigenous nations from all over the country and the globe stood together, along with supporters, and that endures.”

By the end of November 2016, hundreds of tribes from around the nation and the world were represented at the Standing Rock camps. Back home, each tribe faces its own decades-long struggle against environmental and cultural destruction, with years of fighting ahead.
A group of Western Shoshones camp in a tribal sacred site

For more on places where Native people warn against present and future environmental disasters, go to this link for the rest of this article in Yes! magazine.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Joseph Zummo.

The Police Killings No One Is Talking About

Thanks go to the Marshall Project, which named this In These Times article one of the top criminal-justice pieces of 2016, and to Democracy Now! for doing a segment on it. In These Times also published my companion story on voices from the Native Lives Matter movement. Thanks also to Joseph Zummo for the photographs in Tacoma.

SUQUAMISH TRIBE DESCENDANT JEANETTA RILEY, a 34-year-old mother of four, lay facedown on a Sandpoint, Idaho, street. One minute earlier, three police officers had arrived, summoned by staff at a nearby hospital. Her husband had sought help there because Riley—homeless, pregnant and with a history of mental illness—was threatening suicide. Riley had a knife in her right hand and was sitting in the couple’s parked van.
Wearing body armor and armed with an assault rifle and Glock pistols, the officers quickly closed in on Riley—one moving down the sidewalk toward the van, the other two crossing the roadway. They shouted instructions at her—to walk toward them, show them her hands. Cursing them, she refused.
“Drop the knife!” they yelled, advancing, then opened fire. 
They pumped two shots into her chest and another into her back as she fell to the pavement. Fifteen seconds had elapsed from the time they exited their vehicles.
That July evening in 2014, Riley, shown left, became another Native American killed by police. Patchy government data collection makes it hard to know the complete tally. The Washington Post and the Guardian (U.K.) have both developed databases to fill in the gaps, but even these sometimes misidentify or omit Native victims. 
To get a clearer picture, Mike Males, senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, looked at data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collected from medical examiners in 47 states between 1999 and 2011. When compared to their percentage of the U.S. population, Natives were more likely to be killed by police than any other group, including African Americans. By age, Natives 20-24, 25-34 and 35–44 were three of the five groups most likely to be killed by police. (The other two groups were African Americans 20-24 and 25-34.) Males’ analysis of CDC data from 1999 to 2014 shows that Native Americans are 3.1 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans.
Yet these killings of Native people go almost entirely unreported by mainstream U.S. media. In a paper presented in April at a Western Social Science Association meeting, Claremont Graduate University researchers Roger Chin, Jean Schroedel and Lily Rowen reviewed articles about deaths-by-cop published between May 1, 2014, and October 31, 2015, in the top 10 U.S. newspapers by circulation: the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, Chicago Sun-Times, Denver Post, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.

Of the 29 Native Americans killed by police during that time, only one received sustained coverage—Paul Castaway, a Rosebud Sioux man, shown above, who was shot dead in Denver while threatening suicide. The Denver Post ran six articles, totaling 2,577 words. The killing of Suquamish tribal member Daniel Covarrubias, shown below left, allegedly shot when police mistook his cell phone for a gun, received a total of 515 words in the Washington Post and the New York Times (which misidentified him as Latino). The other 27 deaths received no coverage.

Compare this media blackout with the coverage of the next-most-likely group to be killed by police. The researchers found that the 10 papers devoted hundreds of articles to the 413 African Americans killed by police in that period, as well as to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and police violence more broadly. That’s largely a testament to the power of the BLM movement, which exploded after the Aug. 9, 2014 killing of Michael Brown. When Minneapolis police killed both White Earth Ojibwe tribal member Philip Quinn, 30, shown below, and African-American Jamar Clark, 24, during the fall of 2015, Clark’s story was well-reported, while Quinn’s passing, like those of almost all other Native victims, was barely noted. 
Nor did major media report on a spate of Native jailhouse deaths in 2015. The statistics on “death by legal intervention”—a term used by the CDC to describe fatalities at the hands of police—include those that occur in custody prior to sentencing. Whether the deaths are due to police action or neglect, the department is considered accountable. “When people are in custody, law enforcement has control of them and a responsibility for their welfare,” Males explains.
A report commissioned by Alaska’s Gov. Bill Walker found that Joseph Murphy, an Alaska Native veteran of the Iraq War, died of a heart attack in a holding cell in Juneau in August 2015, as jail staff yelled “fuck you” and “I don’t care” in response to his pleas. According to the report, Larry Kobuk, identified in news articles as a 33-year-old Alaska Native, who had a heart condition known to his jailers, died in January 2015 while being held face down by four officers. Sarah Lee Circle Bear, a 24-year-old Sioux mother of two, shown right, was jailed in South Dakota; she died after reportedly complaining of pain and being refused medical care. The list of 2015 deaths goes on: 53-year-old Choctaw medicine man Rexdale Henry, shown below left, in a jail cell in Mississippi; Alaska Native Gilbert Joseph, 57, in Alaska; Yurok tribal member Raymond Eacret, 34, shown below right, in California. 

On the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s reservation in South Dakota, an angry crowd marched on police headquarters after tribal member Phillip High Bear’s mother alleged her 33-year-old son was beaten to death there. Protestors sang, drummed and shouted taunting references to the 1890 shooting death of Lakota spiritual leader Sitting Bull at the hands of Native police officers. Yet even this story received no coverage in the 10 largest papers. 

The Claremont researchers stress that they are not criticizing the important attention paid to the movement for black lives, but they note that a larger narrative is at play, with racial issues in the United States generally framed as black and white. Yet, Native Americans’ experiences of violence and discrimination in the United States often parallel those of African Americans. Federal investigations have found that on the borders of reservations, Native Americans are treated as second-class citizens by police and public agencies in ways that echo the experience of black Americans in towns like Ferguson, Mo.
Over the past 40 years, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), an independent government agency, has held numerous hearings on discrimination in border towns surrounding reservations: in New Mexico, near the Navajo reservation; in South Dakota, near the Sioux reservations; and, just this August, in Billings, Mont., near the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. 
Incidents aired even in recent hearings sound like tales from the pre-civil-rights Deep South. They ranged from denial of service in public places to police brutality to the failure to investigate murders. 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.” 
This is the context for Native deaths at the hands of police. 
The high rate of these killings is also a result of the comparative dearth of mental healthcare services for Native Americans, says Bonnie Duran, an Opelousas/Coushatta tribe descendent and an associate professor in the University of Washington School of Social Work. People threatening suicide and experiencing other mental health crises made up one-quarter of all those killed by cops in the first half of 2016, according to data collected by the Washington Post; they made up nearly half of the Native deaths examined by the Claremont researchers. 
Distraught people in these situations—such as Riley or Castaway—can be particularly vulnerable. Commands from multiple officers in a quickly developing situation can be very difficult to parse, even for someone who isn’t in crisis, says Jim Trainum, a former Washington, D.C., homicide detective who consults on criminal-justice matters.
“Attending to conflicting signals from multiple sources results in a huge cognitive demand,” says Melissa Russano, a psychologist and criminal justice professor at Roger Williams University. “Split-second responses are required of the individual. You have to assess if and to what extent there is a threat, and that may create a certain level of panic.”
As funding for mental healthcare continues to plummet, police are increasingly the first responders to mental health crises that they are apparently ill-equipped to handle. In Native communities, the lack of mental healthcare services is particularly acute, according to an analysis of CDC data by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC), and there’s a critical shortage of Native professionals who understand cultural factors affecting patients. Data from the National Congress of American Indians illustrates this: In 2013, Indian Health Service per-capita expenditures were $2,849, compared to $7,717 per person for healthcare spending nationally. One indication of the situation’s severity is the suicide rate for Natives, which in 2010 was 16.93 per 100,000, compared with 12.08 for the population as a whole, according to SPRC.
Mental health resources for Native Americans are even scarcer off-reservation, in the so-called urban-Indian communities, where about half of the Native population lives. There, clinics are funded at a lower rate, says Duran. This is also where the largest share of police killings occur: 79 percent, according to Chin. 
Some police departments have responded by training officers in crisis intervention, which teaches them to slow down and find alternatives to the immediate application of lethal force, or by pairing officers with mental health professionals on calls that clearly involve such issues. Research is not yet conclusive about what works best, says Duran, but she stresses that the best solution is to address the problem at the root: Fund social services.

The grassroots Native Lives Matter (NLM) movement is working to bring attention to the deaths, and to the larger social and economic oppression of Native Americans. Started in late 2014, the concept was inspired by Black Lives Matter, says one of the originators of the movement, Chase Iron Eyes, a Standing Rock Sioux attorney who recently ran for Congress in North Dakota, shown above second from right. Also shown, from left, are advocates Marlee Kanosh, Troy Amlee, Darleen Tariq with her late partner Phil Quinn and their child, and J.R. Bobick. For more from them, go here.
South Dakota was scrutinized by USCCR in a 2000 report, “Native Americans in South Dakota: An Erosion of Confidence in the Justice System.” In the hearings that led up to the report, commissioners heard testimony about racial profiling during traffic stops, drunk drivers receiving light or suspended sentences for killing Natives, and, just as concerning to Natives, the white community’s denial of the existence of racism toward Native people. 
On Dec. 19, 2014, Iron Eyes and other Natives marched in Rapid City, S.D., to draw attention to police brutality against Natives. The next day, Rapid City police fatally shot a Native man, Allen Locke, who had attended the protest. 
From the beginning, Iron Eyes says, NLM was intended to encompass numerous issues affecting Natives, from child welfare to incarceration disparities. The Native Lives Matter Facebook page and Twitter feed show the idea has proliferated across Indian country, with grassroots groups adopting the slogan as an umbrella term to advocate for environmental and social causes. “We don’t own it; everyone has a right to it,” says Iron Eyes.
Enter the Puyallup tribe (pronounced p-YAH-lup), an economically powerful, 4,000-member Northwest Indian nation with a successful casino, numerous tribal and individual fishing enterprises, and a real-estate portfolio of commercial and industrial properties. The tribe’s reservation intersects the city of Tacoma, Wash., and members report the same kind of police harassment documented by USCCR in other border communities, such as being pulled over for “driving while Indian.” Now, the Puyallup are seeking to ensure that police are held accountable for their actions, no matter who the victim—Native or non-Native. 
The Puyallup were catapulted into the issue of police violence on January 28. Shortly before midnight, Tacoma police officers approached a parked car. A convicted felon, Kenneth Wright, 36, who was wanted on drugs and weapons charges, was in the passenger seat; his pregnant girlfriend, 32-year-old tribal member Jacqueline Salyers, was the driver. Minutes later, one of the officers had shot Salyers in the head, and Wright had escaped into the night. (Salyers’ mother, Lisa Earl, is shown below.)
Almost immediately, relatives began to question the police account of the incident. They are now in the process of conducting their own investigation. There is no video record: Tacoma officers used no body or dash cams at the time, a police surveillance camera overlooking the street allegedly malfunctioned during the event, and police apparently destroyed three security cameras on a nearby house during their investigation.
The city of Tacoma, however, freely provided In These Times with hundreds of pages of witness statements, detectives’ reports, 911 calls, logs of police-vehicle movements, scene photographs and more, assembled for its internal investigation. 
According to the official account, Scott Campbell, the officer who shot Salyers, said that while on patrol, he recognized Wright and, behind the wheel, saw “a Native American female that appeared to be around 30 years of age.” His partner, Aaron Joseph, stopped their cruiser across the street. 
The two officers challenged Salyers and Wright to put their hands up. According to Campbell, Salyers then accelerated the car toward him; he says he shot at her to save his life.
Of the eight shots discharged, four hit Salyers. No shots hit Wright, who, when apprehended weeks later, told investigators he had ducked down.
After the gunfire, the officers took cover. Campbell told police investigators that he hid behind the bed of a pickup truck with his pistol pointed toward Salyers’ vehicle. From this spot, he observed Wright “climbing around in the front of the vehicle [and] attempting to retrieve something from the rear of the vehicle,” screaming “you fucking killed her” and other accusations, clambering over the “apparently shot female,” exiting the car on the driver’s side and running away, armed with a rifle.
The police account raises a number of questions. Why did Campbell believe shooting the driver would stop a car that was in gear and underway? Why would an officer duck, pistol in hand, and watch while a dangerous wanted criminal laboriously armed himself and escaped into a residential neighborhood? In what would undoubtedly be a dangerous and quickly changing situation, why didn’t the officers call for back-up or first look for a way to get Salyers, a bystander, out of the car?
About half an hour later, two officers removed Salyers from her vehicle—dragged her, according to a witness from the neighborhood—and put her in a patrol car. According to Tacoma Police Department spokesperson Loretta Cool, “The suspect, in the area with a rifle, would dictate moving to a safer location to administer medical aid.” Cool declined to comment further, citing the possibility of a lawsuit.
Once in the new location, Salyers was dragged back out of the patrol car and onto the pavement, where Campbell performed chest compressions. Medics arrived and Salyers was pronounced dead. At some point, her right arm was broken, but not by a bullet; her family discovered this while preparing her for burial.
Based on the Tacoma Police Department’s internal investigation and the medical examiner’s report, the county prosecutor found the shooting justified. A review board later affirmed these findings, announcing on August 16 that “Campbell’s use of deadly force was reasonable and within department policy.” Salyers’ family strenuously objects to that conclusion.
The killing horrified residents of the multi-ethnic Tacoma neighborhood. Gary Harrison, a 48-year-old African-American Army veteran, shown left, was awakened by the gunfire. The shooting happened in front of his home, he says, as he diagrams what he observed. “I saw [Jackie’s] car and so many police, for blocks around,” he recalls. 

Two of his housemates told the others, “They shot Jackie.” Harrison had known the young woman. “She always had a smile for you,” he says, eyes bright with tears.
At Salyers’ funeral, her mother, Lisa Earl, 53, called for justice—not only for her daughter, but for everyone impacted by excessive use of force by law enforcement. Her tribe took up the challenge under the banner “Justice for Jackie, Justice for All.” 
Following her killing, Salyers’ relatives met weekly at the Puyallup Little Wild Wolves Youth/Community Center, where Earl works, to mourn and to plan a March 16 two-mile protest march from the tribal headquarters to Tacoma’s federal courthouse. Nearly 300 people turned out. Family and tribal members were joined by other Tacoma residents who had lost loved ones to police shootings and citizens involved with other issues, such as workers’ rights and the environment. In May, family members joined tribal council member Tim Reynon on a trip to Washington, D.C., to press the Department of Justice’s Office of Tribal Justice for an independent investigation of the shooting. At press time, no decision had been made whether to undertake one. 
As time went by, others in the region—both Native and non-Native—who had lost friends and relatives to police killings began attending the family’s gatherings, which continue regularly. They recount their stories in a traditional Puyallup talking circle (during which participants express themselves in turn and without interruption), then share a meal. Each person is in a different phase of their grieving, says James Rideout, 45, Lisa Earl’s brother. “They are in such tender moments.” 
On the evening of June 20, In These Times attended one of the meetings. As participants filtered into the community center, they hugged, exchanged bits of gossip and found places in a circle of chairs. They were Native, black, white and Latino, young and old, united by concern about friends, family and neighbors lost in encounters with the police. The scent of cooking crab—gathered by Rideout in the Puget Sound earlier that day—wafted over the gathering, as participants told stories of tragedy and survival. 
Andre Taylor, 48, spoke about what he called the “execution” of his brother, Che Taylor, an African American shot to death at age 46 in Seattle earlier this year. 

Silvia Sabon, a 53-year-old Tlingit tribal member, shown above, described the death of a 23-year-old Latino family friend, Oscar Perez-Giron, whom she says was killed on a bus platform by police challenging his lack of a ticket. African-American mother Crystal Chaplin, 52, shown left, said that in May 2015, Olympia, Wash., police shot both of her sons, Andre Thompson, then 23, and Bryson Chaplin, then 21, in the back. Both survived, but Bryson was paralyzed.
“Everyone is welcome [at the meeting],” says Sabon. “It doesn’t matter what color you are. We are going through the same thing.”
Though the family and tribal community have acknowledged the Native Lives Matter movement, the thrust of the Puyallup’s efforts has been ecumenical. This approach makes sense culturally to the Puyallup. Their name for themselves in their language connotes “generous and welcoming behavior to all people who enter our lands.”
“When the police killings happened to people who didn’t have a tribe to back them up, they were alone, on their own out there,” says Rideout. “When our tribe took a position on this issue, we realized we had an opportunity to take care of them all, to bring them along with us.” 
In addition, says tribal council member Reynon, shown below, a tribe can be effective in a ways an individual advocate or advocacy group cannot. “We have a trust relationship with the federal government, so we are a sovereign nation with the full weight of the United States behind us. We also have the recognition and respect of local governments.” 
State legislative leaders have appointed Reynon to a new Joint Legislative Task Force on Deadly Force and Community Policing, a committee drawn from community groups as well as law enforcement. The bill establishing the task force acknowledges the danger police are often placed in as they protect the community, but it also seeks ways to reduce violent interactions between law enforcement and the public.
“We have to find a solution that works for everyone,” says Reynon. “It will mean change, and change is never easy.” 
For Salyers’ family, it’s been a painful process. “We never asked to be a part of this,” Rideout says. “We always want to stress the good narratives, our children succeeding. But now that we are involved, we must ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”
Tribal involvement means the possibility of real and lasting change to Ramona Bennett, a Puyallup elder in her late seventies, shown left. “People and movements may fade, but a tribe doesn’t go away,” says Bennett, a former tribal chairwoman and long-time activist who was gassed, clubbed, shot at and arrested during 1970s “fish-ins” to demand recognition of treaty-guaranteed fishing rights. 
The Puyallup have long been easy victims in Tacoma, Bennett says. Traditionally, they lived in communal longhouses, but late-19th-century presidential proclamations and Congressional actions broke up the 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.” 

C. Stephanie Woodard; photographs of Puyallups/Tacoma c. Joseph Zummo.