A System Constructed to Fail Us All

Police brutality against Native Americans
Date: 07/10/2020

Highlighting Natives’ stories of police brutality in a moment of collective grieving and anger


For weeks, we have heard George Floyd’s name. We hear his name chanted by protesters as a rallying cry for justice, stated in news brief updates from commentators, and juxtaposed with that of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

During Chauvin’s time as a police officer, he opened fire on two people and he caused eighteen conduct complaints to be filed against him. One of those cases was in 2011: Chauvin was at the scene with his fellow officers when Leroy Martinez, an Alaska Native, was shot.

The murder of George Floyd on May 25 ignited the latest wave of protests in the Black Lives Matter movement. In this cultural moment of scrutiny of the continual and disproportionate killing of Black and Indigenous people by law enforcement, the Lakota People’s Law Project is revisiting our Native Lives Matter Report that we published in 2015. Once the 2020 census data becomes available, we will incorporate current figures into an updated report. There is a shared history and lived experience of trauma between Black and Indigenous communities, and solidarity is essential in the fight for a more just and peaceful world.

Native people are harmed by the same oppressive police system that subjugates and targets Black community members. This shared collective trauma creates fertile ground for strong alliance building to transform policing in the United States and practice anti-racism.

The over-policing of Native communities, like in Black communities, is not new. It has been happening on stolen land for a long time. Well before modern day law enforcement came to exist, New England settlers paid “Indian Constables” to police Native Americans. Constables not only policed Natives but also encouraged settlers to enact vigilante violence against Indigenous people. There are records showing that the St. Louis police force was originally founded to protect white residents from Native Americans in the frontier city. In addition, numerous slave patrols morphed into modern day police forces across the country.

While community safety has always been practiced in Indigenous communities, settlers brought police as we know them today to Turtle Island. The policing system and police violence against Natives cannot be separated from settler colonialism, wherein a society of settlers work to subjugate — and often eradicate — an Indigenous population from colonized territory. White settler violence manifests in policing and is codified in professional routines, where the use of state force is legitimized against a backdrop of historical violence toward Indigenous communities. This settler violence is aimed at the most often illusory threats posed by Natives, and through policing, police officers uphold a racial hierarchy with the support of the colonial state.

In the modern day, Native Americans are 3.1 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by law enforcement. The number of Native Americans per capita in prisons is an estimated 38 percent above the national average. In local jails, Native representation is approximately four times the national average. At its core, police brutality against Natives is another form of extraction: a removal and punishing of Native people for their existence in a settler colonial state. Like the theft of land, children, and resources by colonial forces, Natives continue to be disproportionately killed, punished, and removed from their tribes and ancestral land by the institution of policing.

While the fight against police brutality is at the forefront of many people’s consciousness right now, Native Americans’ work to combat police brutality has been going on for years. The American Indian Movement was founded over fifty years ago in the Twin Cities with police violence stated as one of AIM’s core issues. In the late 1960s AIM members patrolled city streets to document the Minneapolis Police Department’s endemic violence against Natives. Police violence impacts Native communities living both on and off reservations.

According to federal data, not only are Natives disproportionately killed by police, but they are also victims of violent crimes more than twice as often per capita compared to all other United States residents.

While there is no agreed upon number of Natives killed by police in 2019, the available data ranges from 13 to 16 deaths in the last year alone. However, these figures are likely low, as Natives are often misidentified in police reports and their deaths are grossly underreported. The following are a few deeply troubling case studies from last year.

On April 14, 2019, 32-year old Clarence Leading Fighter was shot twice and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in Rushville, Nebraska. The egregious killing of the Lakota tribal member occurred in the doorway of Immaculate Conception Church during Palm Sunday services. The Lakota People’s Law Project petitioned the Department of Justice to open an investigation into the case for the family of Clarence Leading Fighter.

While the patrol claimed that the unnamed deputy likely fired the fatal shots in self-protection and on behalf of the parishioners, Leading Fighter did not pose a threat according to other witnesses. Donald American Horse, an eyewitness on the scene, reported that Clarence Leading Fighter was tased and lying on the ground before he was shot. He stated that after Leading Fighter hit the floor from the taser a “cop pulled his gun, pointed towards the ground, and pop pop. That was it. They didn’t even give him a chance.” Another eyewitness disputed the official police account of the shooting also insisting that Leading Fighter was incapacitated before being killed.


Above: Clarence Leading Fighter

In a 2019 interview with Indian Country Today, Chase Iron Eyes, lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project and a leader in the Native Lives Matter effort, noted how “Once again, a Native person has been murdered by police and hardly anyone is talking about it...It’s an epidemic of injustice. We Native Americans continually suffer the highest rates of violence at the hands of police, and it just needs to stop.”

On the same morning of April 14, 2019 that Clarence Leading Fighter was shot in Nebraska, Henry Lane was shot in Red Bluff, California. In the early hours of the day, 42-year old Lane was killed by Stephen Harper, who has since been placed on paid administrative leave.

Henry Lane allegedly threatened police officers with a large stick. In a press conference the following Monday, Chief Kyle Sanders said that “Ultimately, when one of the officers felt their life or the lives of the other officers were in danger in terms of receiving significant injury, a choice was made to utilize deadly force.”

"Why couldn't you guys spend more time with it?” a witness asked Red Bluff police, according to reporting by Action News Now. “Why were you guys so anxious to, you know, when there were no threats? Whatever the case may be, it's not worth taking somebody's life."

Notably, in both police body cam footage and a video taken by a bystander uploaded to Facebook, there is at least a two-minute delay before officers begin giving CPR to Lane.

Another unnecessary killing took place in early July of 2019, when Stonechild Chiefstick was allegedly threatening people with a screwdriver during a fireworks celebration for the Fourth of July in Poulsbo, Washington. Chiefstick, a 39-year old member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe and a familiar face in the Suquamish community, was fatally shot by Officer Craig Keller in the middle of a crowd of families awaiting the firework display.

Stonechild Chiefstick’s family, friends, and large community gathered to honor him and to demand details about the investigation into his case. Chiefstick’s daughter, Alana Dawn Chiefstick, told the Kitsap Sun that “I want justice for my dad” as she stood in front of Poulsbo City Hall and the city’s police department. Her four siblings all wore shirts that demanded the same.

“I grew up here, I lived with racism here, my son lived with racism here, my girls lived with racism here, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren live with racism here,” said community member Rita Old Coyote. “There’s no doubt in my mind, no doubt that if Stoney was white, he would not be dead right now.”

Although Poulsbo Officer Craig Keller was placed on administrative leave for a few months, in April of this year Kitsap County prosecutor, Chad Enright, decided not to press charges against Keller and stated that he was justified in shooting Stonechild Chiefstick. Keller has since returned to the Kitsap Police Force.

Once again, a Native person has been murdered by police and hardly anyone is talking about it...It’s an epidemic of injustice. We Native Americans continually suffer the highest rates of violence at the hands of police, and it just needs to stop.

Chase Iron Eyes, lead counsel for the Lakota People's Law Project

The details in these cases matter: the church, road, and community park; the tasers, guns, and power in the hands of police contrasted with the sticks, screwdrivers, and empty hands of victims. However, the common thread cannot be lost: police have used force, both historically and in the modern era, to subjugate and brutalize Native populations. The bottom line is there is a pattern of law enforcement escalating tense situations and a racist structure legitimizing such behavior. When Native and Black people continue to disproportionately die at the hands of police, there needs to be a reimagining of what response teams look like and how to deescalate difficult situations in ways that do not result in fatalities.

This moment of collective mourning is a time to call out unwarranted use of lethal force. In many ways, the telling of Leading Fighter, Lane, and Chiefstick’s killings replicate the all too common stories in the press. These cases highlight major power imbalances between the weapons the police are using and the threat, or lack thereof, posed by the victims. Moreover, in these cases, the police report being scared and acting in self-defense as they killed these young men. While police officers’ excessive use of force is clear-cut in these cases, what about all the cases where the brutality is not as blatant? Even when police misconduct is not as pronounced as it is in these cases, the overarching harmful policing structure has to be the focus for changemakers.

In order to fundamentally challenge policing, we at the Lakota People’s Law Project have been imagining what justice could look like and what transformative justice really means. The modern defund the police movement makes some strong arguments, as resources need to be reallocated to programs supportive of community health and well-being to truly combat a systemically racist nation.

Investing additional resources in every poor community in America should be done in conjunction with changes to the legal system at local and national levels. Law enforcement and the punitive incarceral system feed off each other and perpetuate violence. In the current structure, justice is seen as an eye for an eye. Instead of this punitive approach, why not envision a system where court sentences do not have time stamps, since growth and healing happen on different timelines for defendants? In the sentences that are given, orders should be complex and tailored to the individual’s case. The problem-solving court model practiced in community courts around the world has some promise.

We have the power and the resources collectively to reimagine public safety.

Issues surrounding police brutality can seem insurmountable, yet it is imperative that we take this fight to our local communities and create lasting change. There is no one solution to combating these issues, but we have an obligation to explore solutions. How as Non-Natives and Natives do we advocate most successfully for transforming the police system and deescalating situations without use of force? At the most basic level, we should be working to redirect funds from militarized policing to social services and education. A successful reallocation of resources is critical as we work for change within a violent capitalist system.

When we shout, “No justice! No peace!” the work does not stop there. It is time to enact new models of justice and peace as we transform the systems that were constructed to fail us all.

1. Greene, Jack Raymond. Encyclopedia of Police Science : 2-Volume Set. Routledge, 2006. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203943175

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