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If I had any doubts that my problematic experience with non-Native police has been anything out of the ordinary, the response to my recent article in the Daily Yonder dispelled that notion.
My article, “Driving While Indian,” recounted my traffic stop just off a northern Wisconsin reservation. It seemed obvious to me that I had been singled out by a non-Native law enforcement officer because of who and where I was.
Editors at Indian Country Today Media Network, where I am a frequent contributor, posted the Yonder piece on their Facebook feed and asked readers if they’d ever been busted for “Driving While Indian.”
More than 250 people shared stories of being harassed by non-Native law enforcement, mostly in border towns or on rural roads near their reservations.
Overwhelmingly, respondents seemed inured to being singled out, describing it as life as usual for Native people.
Here are a few of the comments:
I’ve been pulled over six time this year by the local police. I even got a ticket for my headlights. I went to pay it and the lady said. “This is weird they never write a ticket for this.” Yeah confirmation of being discriminated against.
[J]ust happened to us yesterday.
Haven’t we all?
In Oklahoma if you have a tribal license plate you might as well just put a sign on your car that says “Dear cop, please, pull me over, we know you’re bored.”
And my personal favorite to the question of whether a Native had ever felt profiled by police: “Do elephants pee in the woods?!”
The media attention to police violence against African Americans and people of color, and the accompanying surprise and skepticism among some white folks that such things actually happen, remind me a bit of the public response to the Amnesty International Maze of Injustice Report.
The 2006 report found that Native women experience higher rates of sexual assault than any other ethnic minority in the United States. Data gathered from the U.S. Justice Department showed the perpetrators of this violence were primarily non-Native. With other ethnicities, there’s much more chance that the victim and perpetrator will be the same race.
One out of three Native women will likely be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Politicians, public leaders and the public expressed shock and outrage. I — and the Native women I know — however, wanted to know who the other two Native women who were not sexually assaulted were. We weren’t acquainted with any Native women who had not been victimized.
Both of these situations go a long way in depicting the parallel realities experienced by people of color and white folks in this country. Moreover, “They are endemic of a deeply discriminatory justice system,” according to the Lakota Peoples’ Law Project’s report, Native Lives Matter.
The report, which was released just this year, asserts that law enforcement’s unfair treatment of Native people is not an isolated incident but reflects inequities of race and economics.
South Dakota, for instance, has a financial incentive from the federal government to place Native children in foster homes, effectively creating a pipeline to prison for many Native people, the report says. State services associated with child welfare for Native children bring in approximately $65 million in federal funding for South Dakota.
Such focus on punitive measures for Native families and high arrest and incarceration rates for Native people effectively criminalize people for being Indian.
“In order to transcend the paradox of increasing incarceration expenditures, the federal government must begin empowering tribes by funding child and family services, tribal juvenile detention and drug and rehabilitation centers,” the report said.
Finally, this important report says no amount of training will correct the problems that exist between police and Native Americans without other measures. The long-term solution is to change law-enforcement hiring practices so there’s a tighter connection between local police and Native communities.
“Despite the best of intentions bolstering ‘cultural awareness’ initiatives, South Dakota cannot remedy the current situation without hiring a police force which more accurately reflects its service population,” the report states.
“As FBI Director James Comey recently remarked, ‘It’s hard to hate up close.’”
Mary Annette Pember is a freelance journalist and photographer who has written numerous tribal-affairs stories for the Daily Yonder. She also is a regular correspondent for Indian Country Today Media Network.