Native Activists Fight to Bring Attention to Police Killings

By Sameer Rao Oct 19, 2016

According to an article published Monday (October 17) by In These Times, Native Americans are killed by police at a higher rate than any other group. Native activists, noting the relative lack of attention that these deaths receive, seek to draw attention to this issue under the banner of Native Lives Matter (NLM). 

While the article sometimes frames Native activism as something that competes with the Black Lives Matter movement—which implies opposition and echoes arguments that accuse BLM of reducing the importance of the lives of other people—it still serves as a useful primer on the myriad police killings of Native peoples that don’t received sustained attention. The piece cites two studies that indicate how pervasive that violence is and how little attention it garners:

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.

The Claremont researchers, emphasizing "that they are not criticizing the important attention paid to the movement for Black lives," found that only one of the 29 Native peoples killed during the aformentioned time period—Paul Castaway, killed in Denver last year—received sustained media attention. The writer says the "hundreds of articles [devoted] to the 413 African Americans killed by police in that period" was "largely a testament to the power of the BLM movement."

Among the other Native victims included in the In These Times article are Rexdale Henry, found dead in a Mississippi jail cell under circumstances reminiscent of Sandra Bland‘s death, and Loreal Juana Barnell-Tsingine, who was shot dead by a policeman in Arizona after brandishing a pair of scissors.

The piece also explores the NLM movement, which addresses the structural issues compounding Native oppression:

Started in late 2014, the concept was inspired by Black Lives Matter, says one of the founders, Chase Iron Eyes, a Lakota attorney and Democratic candidate for Congress from North Dakota….

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.

The piece goes on to describe successful response of the Puyallup tribe when Tacoma police officers killed member Jacqueline Salyers in January. Working alongside Black community members and organizations, they are advocating for a current state ballot initiative that demands increased police accountability. 

Read the full article here, and let us know what you think in the comments.