A Deadly Month—Police Killings of Native Americans

This article appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in 2016. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....  

As many as eight fatal police shootings of Native Americans occurred during October of 2016. This figure was first reported by Marlee Kanosh, Paiute Tribe of Utah. Her Facebook page, Native Lives Taken By Police, is the news source of record for information on police violence as it affects indigenous people. With careful, respectful research and comprehensive coverage, Kanosh chronicles a terrible toll: Natives killed outright by police or dying in custody. 

In October, Kanosh said, “I’m overwhelmed.” The workload, which she does as a volunteer, is always heavy, but was suddenly and unexpectedly worse. “I have so many deaths to look into now. My notebooks are full. I have piles of paper everywhere.”

The number of Natives who died in October is much higher the monthly average found in a 2016 study by Claremont Graduate University scholars Roger Chin, Jean Schroedel and Lily Rowen. Among other information, they uncovered 29 deaths in a recent 15-month period, for about two a month. Kanosh couldn’t point to a reason for the October spike, but noted that poorly funded health care and untreated or under-treated mental illness and addiction continue to place Native people in jeopardy.

The fatalities occurred around the country—in Washington state, where a young mother was shot dead in front of her young children during a welfare check on the Muckleshoot reservation, apparently because she was threatening suicide; in Oklahoma, where a homeless man met his death at the hands of police; and in Nevada, where an Oglala veteran was shot after a sudden spate of robberies that were reportedly more of a mental-health crisis than a crime spree. Two more Natives appear to have been killed in Oklahoma, while Nebraska, Texas and North Carolina saw at least one fatality each.

“The need for police officers to have specialized training in helping individuals with mental illness is very important, perhaps more than ever,” said Chin, a political scientist who studies real-world applications of criminal-justice policy and data analysis.

Kanosh criticized police claims that citizens should simply follow orders to survive these encounters. “We have a saying here in Utah, ‘Comply or Die—It’s Not the Law!’” Kanosh said. “What about our rights? We didn’t put up our hands fast enough? Someone instinctively pulled up his pants when cops ordered him to crawl forward on his knees? How can we possibly know exactly what’s expected of us in these horrible situations? And because we don’t, we die?”

Chin agreed. “Sometimes it’s difficult to comprehend orders given by officers in a fast-moving situation,” he said. “And a person in the midst of a mental health crisis may not be able to comply quickly—or at all.”

Police need to better communicate what exactly compliance entails, according to Chin. That’s because officers in different jurisdictions may expect the public to behave in unique ways, he explained. “For example, while most academies train officers to have a driver remain inside the vehicle during a traffic stop, I discovered on a trip to Louisiana that sometimes officers want individuals to exit the vehicle in order to see better what they are doing. The public needs to know these and other expectations.”

Improving training and communications is good for police as well as the public, Chin said. “Using lethal force can be a life-changing, career-ending experience. For most officers, it’s a decision that’s not taken lightly and has enormous emotional consequences.”Numerous advocates and social-media page administrators have done a heroic job of publicizing the various social-justice issues that drive the cry, “Native Lives Matter.” Kanosh has been closely involved in these issues; she was among the water protectors at Standing Rock when they were attacked with dogs. 

However, Kanosh’s Facebook page maintains a tight focus on a crisis that exploded in her life when her brother, Corey, shown here, was shot and left to die in the Utah desert in 2012. “At that time, people whose relatives had been killed reached out to me,” she recalled. “The huge community of those affected by police violence embraced me and my family. Now, I reach out to embrace others and let them know I have been where they are. Whenever a new person or family comes in, we all gather around them.” 

The initial information for a post on Kanosh’s page comes from a huge, ever-growing circle of contacts from coast to coast, including community members, advocates and groups. “People message me constantly. Groups share lists with me. I know relatives of those who died. I know their neighbors. If someone thinks someone who’s been killed just might be Native, they send me the information, so I can look into it.” 

She follows up, contacts the victim’s friends and family and requests permission to post photographs and related information. “I don’t want people to be forgotten. I want to keep their stories alive. So, I also redo the older stories from time to time,” Kanosh said. “Today, I remembered someone I should post about again. I felt so sad.”

Kanosh survives on prayer and meditation. She would not accept credit or praise for her daily toil on behalf of the dead and their loved ones. She called herself, “Just one girl who lost her brother.” 

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs courtesy Marlee Kanosh.

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