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Do Indian Lives Matter? Police Violence Against Native Americans

With all our talk about police violence aimed at poor and minority communities, we have yet to talk about the group most likely to be killed by law enforcement: Native Americans.

Native American men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men and Native American women are sent to prison at six times the rate of white women. Those are pretty stunning statistics on their own. Even more stunning is that although Native Americans comprise only .8% of the population, with these elevated rates of police encounters, they make up three out of the top five top age-groups that are most likely to be killed by law enforcement.

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Unlike racial profiling of other communities of color, law enforcement’s singling out of Native Americans is not limited to racial profiling based on the color of the person’s skin. There are also geographic components, for those living or working on reservation land. And in South Dakota many Native Americans complain that the police target people driving cars or trucks with license plates that start with the number 6, which identifies that the car is registered to a resident of a reservation.

Law enforcement’s pattern of immediately escalating encounters with Native American communities has led to many horrifying results. To see how this plays out first hand, consider the following video. In it, a 50 year old Native American man named John T. Williams ambles across the street at a Seattle cross walk. He is an accomplished artist – a wood carver – and he has a knife and a piece of wood in his hand. A Seattle police officer immediately escalates this non-situation. The officer jumps from his squad car, shouts at Mr. Williams to put the knife down, and a few seconds later, guns Williams down in three shot. There’s no claim that Mr. Williams was threatening anyone or acting aggressively, only that he was carving the piece of wood in his hand as he walked and that he did not drop the knife fast enough when ordered to do so. (It turns out that Mr. Williams was deaf in one ear, and the officer approached him from behind, which likely explains why his reflexes were just not fast enough). Keep in mind, as you ponder this incident or watch the video, that in Washington State (as with most states) it is perfectly legal to walk around toting a gun. Yet, an officer kills a non-aggressive man, merely for whittling with a knife while he walks? It is unfathomable. Except that it occurred. This senseless shooting gives you an idea how it is that the police kill Native Americans at a higher rate than any other ethnic group.

In reality, our legal system has been unnecessarily escalating situations involving Native Americans for generations (and I’m not even talking about the whole issue of how Europeans came to America and committed genocide in the first place). For instance, the State of South Dakota receives thousands of dollars from the federal government for every Native American child it removes from his or her home. The result – surprise, surprise – is that Native American children make up less than 15% of the child population, yet they make up more than half of the children in foster care. Additionally, Native Americans have a history of receiving far higher prison terms when convicted of a crime – 57% more prison time than whites, according to a 2003 University of South Dakota study. Our legal system is stacked against Native Americans, and that system is the culmination of a long history of oppression. This continuation of more subtle subjugation is similar to that which is still inflicted on African Americans long after the end of legalized slavery.

As the Black Lives Matter gains traction and national attention, why is there no similar support  or attention for the rallying cry that Native Lives Matter?

This article appeared on the website of Loevy & Loevy.

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Debra Loevy graduated cum laude from University of Michigan Law School in 1995. She has extensive experience addressing poverty law issues and criminal defense appeals. She is admitted to practice in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Illinois Supreme Court, and multiple courts of appeal and district courts.

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