Native Americans are being killed by police at a higher rate than any other group in the country–but these deaths are rarely covered in the media. Now, Native groups are organizing for justice in a growing Native Lives Matter movement.
SUQUAMISH TRIBE DESCENDANT JEANETTA RILEY, A 34-YEAR-OLD MOTHER OF FOUR, LAY FACEDOWN ON A SANDPOINT, IDAHO, STREET. One minute earlier, three police officers had arrived, summoned by staff at a nearby hospital. Her husband had sought help there because Riley—homeless, pregnant and with a history of mental illness—was threatening suicide. Riley had a knife in her right hand and was sitting in the couple’s parked van.
Wearing body armor and armed with an assault rifle and Glock pistols, the officers quickly closed in on Riley—one moving down the sidewalk toward the van, the other two crossing the roadway. They shouted instructions at her—to walk toward them, show them her hands. Cursing them, she refused.
“Drop the knife!” they yelled, advancing, then opened fire.
They pumped two shots into her chest and another into her back as she fell to the pavement. Fifteen seconds had elapsed from the time they exited their vehicles.
That July evening in 2014, Riley became another Native American killed by police. Patchy government data collection makes it hard to know the complete tally. The Washington Post and the Guardian (U.K.) have both developed databases to fill in the gaps, but even these sometimes misidentify or omit Native victims.
To get a clearer picture, 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.
Of the 29 Native Americans killed by police during that time, only one received sustained coverage—Paul Castaway, a Rosebud Sioux man shot dead in Denver while threatening suicide. The Denver Post ran six articles, totaling 2,577 words. The killing of Suquamish tribal member Daniel Covarrubias, shot when he reached for his cell phone, received a total of 515 words in the Washington Postand the New York Times (which misidentified him as Latino). The other 27 deaths received no coverage.
Compare this media blackout with the coverage of the next-most-likely group to be killed by police. The researchers found that the 10 papers devoted hundreds of articles to the 413 African Americans killed by police in that period, as well as to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and police violence more broadly. That’s largely a testament to the power of the BLM movement, which exploded after the Aug. 9, 2014 killing of Michael Brown. When Minneapolis police killed both White Earth Ojibwe tribal member Philip Quinn, 30, and African-American Jamar Clark, 24, during the fall of 2015, Clark’s story was well-reported, while Quinn’s passing, like those of almost all other Native victims, was barely noted.
Nor did major media report on a spate of Native jailhouse deaths in 2015. The statistics on “death by legal intervention”—a term used by the CDC to describe fatalities at the hands of police—include those that occur in custody prior to sentencing. Whether the deaths are due to police action or neglect, the department is considered accountable. “When people are in custody, law enforcement has control of them and a responsibility for their welfare,” Males explains.
A report commissioned by Alaska’s Gov. Bill Walker found that Joseph Murphy, an Alaska Native veteran of the Iraq War, died of a heart attack in a holding cell in Juneau in August 2015, as jail staff yelled “fuck you” and “I don’t care” in response to his pleas. According to the report, Larry Kobuk, identified in news articles as a 33-year-old Alaska Native, who had a heart condition known to his jailers, died in January 2015 while being held face down by four officers. Sarah Lee Circle Bear, a 24-year-old Sioux mother of two jailed in South Dakota, died after reportedly complaining of pain and being refused medical care. (At the Democratic National Convention, Sandra Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, who has become a vocal activist in the movement for black lives, pointed out that Circle Bear’s death occurred during the same month her daughter died in police custody—July 2015.)
Read the rest of Stephanie Woodard’s investigation here.