E. J. R. David Ph.D.

Unseen and Unheard

Five Facts on Native Lives and the (In)Justice System*

Parallels Between the Native and Black Experiences Regarding the Justice System

Posted Mar 07, 2016

The tragic deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, and Samuel Dubose – along with stories of many other black individuals who were harassed, imprisoned, or killed – have brought intense national attention on racism once again.

It’s not that racism went away and has all of a sudden resurfaced; racism never went away! Perhaps racism just became more subtle, more silent, more hidden, but it was still very real; it just wasn’t in the national consciousness. It’s just that the tragedies that took the lives of our black brothers and sisters recently have brought the national spotlight back on racism, on racial inequality, on racial injustice – on both the systemic and interpersonal levels. Indeed, these recent tragedies remind us that our society still needs to do plenty of work to truly appreciate and value Black lives.

As we work toward making society realize that #BlackLivesMatter, we need to also become aware that the Indigenous Peoples of these lands are also facing similarly troubling issues. Society’s large-scale ignorance of the issues facing our Native brothers and sisters – and their continued exclusion in the national discourse on racism especially with regard to the justice system – is extremely disappointing. Such historical amnesia and contemporary blindness to Native realities, unfortunately, are not surprising as Native experiences have been marginalized and forgotten throughout our country’s history.

To this end, I highlight five facts regarding Native Peoples’ experiences with the justice system that can hopefully help us see the parallels between the Native and Black struggles.

Fact 1: Many in our society hold automatic dehumanizing stereotypes against Native Peoples, too.

E. J. R. David
Source: E. J. R. David

Similar to the research evidence suggesting that many Americans – even police officers – hold negative stereotypes against Black people, which may then lead to discriminatory behaviors toward Black people, there is also growing research literature suggesting that many in our society hold deeply in-grained stereotypes against Native Peoples, too. For instance, research suggests that many have automatically associated Native Peoples with thoughts such as “savage,” “primitive,” “dirty,” and “lazy” – inferiorizing concepts that may lead to discriminatory or unjust behaviors. These automatic negative attitudes toward Native Peoples may contribute to the many issues they face with regard to the justice system.

For example, unconscious biases against Native Peoples are probably parts of the reasons why officers, investigators, and jury members were so quick to put blame on the Fairbanks Four – four Native men who were convicted of murdering a White man despite questionable investigative procedures and weak evidence; four Native men who 18 years later were released from prison but only with the promise that they will not sue the police and the prosecutors for any wrongdoings. Indeed, commenting on the high numbers of Alaska Natives in the prison system back in 2003 when he was General Counsel for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Ethan Schutt stated: "I think it's easier to convict Native people than other defendants or ethnic groups. Police and prosecutors seem to be more vigorous in pursuing Native defendants, and jurors seem more willing to believe the authorities and disbelieve the defense when Native defendants are on trial.”

Fact 2: Native Peoples compose a disproportionately high percentage of the prison population, too.

There is indisputable evidence that Black people are over-represented in our state and federal prisons. For example, although Black males comprise only around 14% of the United States male population, Black men compose 60% of the male prison population! As we look at the racism and the racial inequality that drive and saturate our prison system, however, we need to also become aware of how such a system affects Native Peoples.

Just like our Black brothers and sisters, Native Peoples also compose a troublingly and disproportionately high percentage of the prison population. Indeed, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Native Peoples are incarcerated at a rate that is 38% higher than the national average. Further, according to the Lakota Peoples Law Project, Native youth compose 70% of the youth admitted to the federal bureau of prisons despite the fact that Native youth make up only 1% of the country’s youth population. In Hawaii, approximately 40% of the prison population are Native Hawaiian even though they comprise just around 7% of the state population. In the State of Alaska, where Native Peoples compose 16% of the State population – the highest percentage of Native residents in the country – a whopping 37% of prisoners are Native! The incarceration rate is even higher for Alaska Native youth, who comprise 42% of all young offenders under State of Alaska custody!

Fact 3: Native Peoples are killed by police at a disproportionately high rate, too.

E. J. R. David
Source: E. J. R. David
E.J.R. David
Source: E.J.R. David

Similar to how Black people are the victims in 26% of all police shootings even though Black people make up only around 14% of the country’s population, we need to also become aware that Native Peoples are victims of police killings in staggeringly disproportional rate.

We also need to know the stories of Christopher J. Capps, Paul Castaway, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Nicholas “Sul” Concha, Mah-Hi-Vist Goodblanket, Rexdale W. Henry, Kenneth John, Corey Kanosh, Allen Locke, Joseph Murphy, Vincent “Pamiuq” Nageak III, Jacqueline Salyers, Christina Tahhahwah, Benjamin Whiteshield, John T. Williams, Detlef Wulf, and many others. These names represent just a small and recent fraction of the many Native individuals who have been killed by law enforcement officers over the years. Indeed, citing a report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice that used data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Lakota Peoples Law Project found that Native Americans are most likely to be killed by law enforcement relative to other racial groups. This troubling fact is based on the finding that Native Peoples account for almost 2% of all victims of police killings, despite the fact that Native Peoples compose only 0.8% of the United States population.

Fact 4: Justice system injustices affect Native women, too.

It cannot be denied that similar to their male counterparts, Black women also face injustice with regard to the justice system. For instance, although composing only around 13% of the United States female population, Black women make up 30% of the female prisoners in the country.

Similar to Black women, Native women are also disproportionately represented in the prison system. For example, in South Dakota and Montana where Native Peoples compose 8% and 6% of the state population, respectively, Native women comprise 35% and 25% of such states’ female prison population. In Alaska, where Native Peoples compose 16% of the State population – the highest percentage of Native residents in the country – 35% of female prisoners are Native women. According to the Lakota Peoples Law Project, Native women are six times more likely to be admitted to prison than White women. Furthermore, Native female adolescents have the highest incarceration rate among all racial groups, and they are five times more likely than White girls to be admitted into a juvenile detention facility!

Even further, there are also numerous instances of violence and crimes against Native women being ignored, swept under the rug, or not being prioritized by law enforcement officials. Perhaps one of the most egregious example of this is the Canadian government’s refusal to pay attention to and prioritize the alarming statistics regarding First Nations women: that although they compose only 4% of Canada’s female population, First Nations women are 25% of all homicide victims, 16% of female murder victims, and 11% of missing women! In total, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that there are at least 1,181 (1,017 homicides and 164 missing) indigenous women who were either murdered or are missing over the past 30 years. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women stated that such “victimization of Native women is partly the legacy of colonial heritage…” and that the lack of attention to it is “a grave violation” of indigenous women’s rights.

Fact 5: “Respectability” does not save Native lives, neither.

A high level of education did not save Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Being a Christian – a pastor at that – didn’t seem to matter either. Wearing suits and ties did not save Malcolm X. Serving the country through the military certainly did not save Medgar Evers. There are many more examples – historically and contemporarily – of “respectable” Black people who were nevertheless stereotyped, mistreated, suspected, and even killed simply because they were Black. Such examples tell us that level of education, popularity, how well one plays a certain sport, how much money one makes, how one dresses, how one speaks, how patriotic one is, what kind of music one listens to, or even how loud one plays his music, does not save Black lives.

Similarly, “respectability” will not save Native lives neither. Here’s an example:

Vincent “Pamiuq” Nageak III, a proud Inupiaq man, was a U.S. Army veteran. He was the nephew of an Alaska State Representative, and his family is well-known and well-regarded in their hometown of Barrow. Pamiuq served as an officer for the Department of Corrections, working closely with the North Slope Borough Police Department for over 10 years, then transitioned into working for the North Slope Borough Fire Department, being named "Firefighter of the Year," and eventually becoming Fire Chief. He also ran for a City Assembly Seat and won. He also obtained a college degree while serving his community. All of these things he did while also hunting and whaling, staying true to his Inupiaq heritage and further making him a well-respected community member. Pamiuq did not criticize the justice system; he was part of the system. He did not campaign for the improvement of police work especially with regard to racial inequalities. In fact, he liked t-shirts that said “I can breathe, because I don’t break the law.”

But none of these “respectable” things saved Pamiuq. He was shot dead by police, while he was inside his own home – alone.    

Toward Solidarity

I would like to end with this quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015):

"There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men (and women) enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing - race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy - serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body." (p. 10)

Consistent with this passage from Between the World and Me, the statistics and facts that I briefly summarized here tell us that there are problems in the system, problems that go all the way back in our country’s history as these systems were founded on the theft and rape of these lands, on the genocide and colonialism of these lands’ First Peoples, on the dehumanizing and inferiorizing stereotypes attached to the First Peoples’ heritage and cultures. This system legitimizes unfairness, making it look justifiable and acceptable, obscuring its ugliness and its catastrophic consequences on peoples’ lives. The system then socializes – or trains – people to correctly interpret and put into action such policies. So today the problems are in both the systemic and individual levels, and such legitimized, sanctioned, and protected racism affect communities in very real, painful, and devastating ways.

This is true for the injustices against our Black brothers and sisters. Now we need to become aware – if we aren’t already – that this is also true for the historical and contemporary injustices facing our Native communities.

Let’s build partnerships and work in solidarity with each other in our collective and united resistance against oppression.


*The title of this piece used to be "Five Facts to Help Us Realize that #Native Lives Matter, Too." However, out of respect and in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the title has been changed. Now that I know better, I try to do better.


E.J.R. David, Ph.D. has two books, "Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino American Postcolonial Psychology" and "Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups." He is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he also directs the Alaska Native Community Advancement in Psychology Program. He is married to a Koyukon Athabascan woman, with whom he has three children.

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