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Collective Action Will End Police Violence to Indigenous Peoples

Written by Sikowis Nobiss

Art by Moselle Singh, Drawn From Water

Our heart goes out to Bemi (Shyla Wolf) - Meskwaki - who was assaulted on March 30, 2023 by Officer Kyle Howe while three of her young children watched from the car and screamed in fear. She ended up with contusions on her lip, neck, arms, and full body soreness. Officer Howe is known for targeting Meskwaki folks in Tama and represents the continuation of a long history of police violence and injustice perpetrated on Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island. Though Indigenous Peoples are targeted at alarming rates by cops, these disturbing statistics are not being heard by the rest of society due to the intense efforts to erase us and our history.

Maggie Koerth from FiveThirtyEight, reports that “depending on the year, either Native Americans or African-Americans have the highest rate of deaths by law enforcement. The fact that Indigenous Peoples have such high police murder rates is not a well-known statistic because the population is smaller and because violence to us is not of particular interest to mainstream media and governmental entities. According to a CNN review of the Center for Diseases Control, “for every 1 million Native Americans, an average of 2.9 of them died annually from 1999 to 2015 as a result of a legal intervention”. For the Black population the number is 2.6, for Latinx it is 1.7, for Whites it is 0.9 and for Asians it is 0.6.”

This is a startling statistic because Native Americans only make up 0.9% (2.9 million people) of the population. Furthermore, these deaths are most likely under-reported just like the other epidemics that Native Americans face, such as missing and murdered women, abuse, rape, stalking, runaway children and violence committed by non-tribal members. In fact, the deadliest mass shooting in US history, known as the Wounded Knee Massacre, occurred in 1890 when United States Army troops murdered up to 300 Lakota, including women and children. According to Matthew Fletcher, director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center, “The data available likely does not capture all Native American deaths in police encounters due to people of mixed race and a relatively large homeless population that is not on the grid." (CNN) In a paper written by B Perry in 2006 titled, “Nobody trusts them! Under- and over-policing Native American communities”, they presented evidence from 278 individual interviews with eight separate Native Nations that police action toward Native people ranged from ignoring victims to outright brutality against suspects. (Fatal Encounters Between Native Americans and the Police)

Right here in 2017, on the border of Iowa and Nebraska, Zachary Bear Heels was brutally murdered by Omaha police. Bear Heels, was a 29-year-old Native American (Sičangu / Rosebud, Kiowa Apache) man who was murdered by four officers serving on the Omaha Police Force. We in the Indigenous community and his family are still mourning his violent and shameful murder at the hands of those who were sent to help him and so we have carried out a prayer walk every year–this year will be our 6th event.

Zachary was traveling back home to his family in Oklahoma when he was asked to get off the bus in Omaha while he was suffering a mental health crisis where he then wandered the city alone, confused and lost before making his way to a gas station where he was then brutally murdered by police. He was tased 12 times, punched 13 times in the head, and dragged by his braids. Some of the tasing occurred while Bear Heels was handcuffed and just sitting against a vehicle. The police stated that he died of “excited delirium”, the same bogus cause of death attributed to George Floyd. In 2017, and ever since, the Indigenous community cried out and no one responded except our own people. The erasure and whitewashing we face is like no other in this country.

Police brutality is not just physical violence, it is also the absence of action. Beyond the physical brutality they inflict, police instigate death through inaction and are complicit in crimes of murder without lifting a hand. It’s a well-known fact in BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ circles that cops are slower to respond to calls for help in our communities, neighborhoods, and reservations. They also do not use their resources to look for missing BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ folks as they do for White folks, and they are quick to write off murders as normal or expected in those communities. Even though Indigenous folks have the highest rates of missing and murdered women and girls in the country, a crisis known as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls (MMIWG), we receive very little funding and research into this crisis and the resources needed to end it. As of 2021, 107 of 6,300 missing person reports in Iowa Involved Native American & Alaska Native Peoples--totalling 1.69% yet we only make up 0.54% of the entire state population. Another noteworthy statistic for Iowa is that the Native American population in Sioux City is around 2%, yet we make up 45% - 65% of the houseless population, leaving our communities more vulnerable to predation.

The cops have also been known to drop “problem” persons off in the middle of nowhere, even in winter and in the middle of the night, which has deadly consequences. This was and was and still is a common practice amongst cops all over Turtle Island. There is a particularly infamous case of this called the Starlight Tours, which was a series of murders perpetrated by Saskatoon police in Saskatchewan, Canada in the early 2000s whereby they were caught for dropping Indigenous men off in the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter to freeze to death.

The entire criminal (in)justice system is set up to purposefully and methodically target Indigenous Peoples with the sole purpose of continued genocided and cultural erasure. This bias was documented in a study carried out in Iowa concerning the criminal justice system and youth, which states, “that Native American juvenile offenders received harsher punishments than their white counterparts when controlling for offender background and legal history (Leiber, 1994).” (Fatal Encounters Between Native Americans and the Police)

Native Americans adults are also incarcerated at disproportionately high rates. Native American men are admitted to prison at 4 times the rate of white men, and Native American women are admitted at 6 times the rate of white women. The number of Native Americans confined in jail is 4 times the national average and the number, per capita, confined to federal prisons is 38% above the national average.

The only way to end police violence and abolish this inherently white supremacist institution built on colonization and the greed of capitalism is for communities to take collective action. Centering mutual aid and radical healing in our communities will enable us to take back power and end our erasure, the erasure our history and our culture. Taking back power builds strength and increases resources, which we need to oust violent cops and create our own culturally appropriate systems of accountability and wellness programs. Great Plains Action Society remains committed to this goal and will continue to work diligently towards abolition of systems set up to eradicate us.


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