Police shootings of Native Americans spark a movement

A new generation of activists on and off reservations struggle for visibility.

 

No one knows why, but when he heard the sudden blare of sirens behind him, Daniel Covarrubias began running. The 37-year-old was walking home from the St. Clare hospital in Lakewood, Washington, on April 21, 2015, after getting treatment for side effects from his pain medications. His backpack full of beadwork, a craft that he had started a few years ago in an attempt to reconnect with his Native heritage, Covarrubias dashed into a nearby lumberyard, scaled a 25-foot-tall stack of wood and crouched, trying to hide.

The police showed up, and Covarrubias reached into his pockets. “Show your hands,” they yelled. He raised a dark object toward them, as if he were pointing a gun. The two policemen opened fire: Nine shots, one of which hit Covarrubias in the head, killing him. When the officers climbed up on top of the wood stack, they discovered that the object Covarrubias had pointed was a cellphone.

His death adds to a troubling statistic: In the West, as in the rest of the nation, Native Americans are the racial group most likely to be killed by law enforcement, at a rate three times higher than whites. In 2016, an estimated 21 Native Americans fell victim to police violence, according to The Counted, a database that tracks people killed by U.S. law enforcement personnel; the previous year, 13 died. The deaths have ignited the same outrage that erupted in recent years following the shooting deaths of numerous African-Americans by law enforcement. Following the Black Lives Matter model, a Native Lives Matter movement has spread, calling attention to what Chase Iron Eyes, a Lakota attorney and activist, calls America’s “undeclared race war.” For police, Covarrubias’ death was a rare tragedy — a product of the split second decision-making that law enforcement officers must make to protect others and themselves. For many Native Americans in Washington and elsewhere, however, his death was an echo of the violence they had endured for centuries.

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Daniel Covarrubias' mother, Marilyn Covarrubias, left, covers her face while talking to reporters about his death. Daniel’s sister, Lanna Covarrubias, holds a sign that asks for answers to why the police shot her unarmed brother. They have spoken out about their loss along with families of black victims of police violence.
Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

In the weeks and months following her brother’s death, Lanna Covarrubias kept coming back to one question: Daniel had just left the hospital. He was in pain. Why, she wondered, did the officers take such aggressive action?

That question has reverberated among Native Americans both on and off reservations in recent years. While Native Americans make up less than one percent of the population, they account for nearly two percent of police killings.  Several factors contribute to that statistic, including the lack of mental health services (nearly half of the victims had histories of mental illness) and the often-strained relationship between Native Americans and non-native police. Many tribes are under the jurisdiction of nearby non-tribal authorities, leaving cities and counties struggling to come up with the additional policing resources. According to researchers at Claremont Graduate University, 83 percent of the deadly encounters between Native Americans and law enforcement involved non-tribal police.

Yet, for every black Michael Brown who makes the headlines, a victim of police violence in Indian Country remains invisible. The Claremont study found that between May 2014 and October 2015, major U.S. newspapers mentioned just two of the 29 verifiable Native American deaths at the hands of police during that period. The real number of deaths was likely even higher, says Jean Schroedel, one of the researchers, noting that Native deaths often go unrecorded.  Many live on remote reservations or in rural border towns, which don’t get as much media coverage as big cities. In urban areas, where more than half of Native Americans reside, they are often identified as another race. Covarrubias, for instance, was identified as Latino even though he is a member of the Suquamish nation.

In 2010, Lanna Covarrubias joined protests following the death of John T. Williams, a woodcarver from the Nitinaht First Nation, who was shot by a Seattle police officer as he walked across a street with an open knife and a chunk of cedar. She thought it was an isolated case.

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The family of Daniel Covarrubias gather at his memorial.
Lanna Covarrubias

But a year after her brother died, Jackie Salyers, a pregnant 32-year-old Puyallup tribal member, was shot and killed not far from the lumberyard where Covarrubias died. Lanna began hearing about other victims too, like Mike Mitchell, shot in the chest by Tacoma police after he lunged at an officer with a folding pocket knife. And Paul Castaway, a mentally ill Sioux man, shot in 2015 by Denver police. Last year, Loreal Tsingine, a petite Navajo woman was shot and killed by a police officer in Winslow, Arizona during an altercation in which she wielded a pair of scissors. None of the officers involved in any of the cases were charged with wrongdoing. “You see it in the movies and you don’t think it could be your family,” says Lanna. “And then you meet others and you realize it’s been happening for generations.”

Native American activists raised the issue of police brutality as far back as the mid-1960s. It later became a driving force behind the American Indian Movement (AIM), which formed in 1968 to help raise awareness about problems facing the growing numbers of urban Native Americans.

Over the years, the AIM movement spawned a number of North American offshoots, including Idle No More, a 2012 campaign that began in Canada around the thousands of cases involving missing and murdered indigenous women that were never investigated. A few years later, as police violence against African Americans exploded into view, Native American activists began calling attention to the high rates of law enforcement violence in their own communities, a campaign that grew into the Native Lives Matter movement, with protests and rallies held in cities and towns across the West.

Like the emerging Black Lives Matter movement, there were calls for investigations into racial bias in law enforcement and criminal justice reform, but Native activists saw their movement as something more: their stories needed to be included in conversations about police brutality.

After police shot and killed Marlee Kanosh’s brother, Corey, a member of the Paiute tribe, in the Utah desert in 2012, she began receiving messages of support from other Native people. Some had lost family members to police violence and Kanosh worried that like so much of her people’s history, their deaths would remain invisible. So in 2014, she started the Native Lives Taken by Police Facebook page, to better document Native victims. “Each one of these people’s stories need to be told,” she says.

The Native Lives Matter Facebook page now has over 100,000 followers and the movement has grown in other ways as well, encompassing not only police shootings, but also other forms of violence, from indigenous people’s overrepresentation in the prison system, to land and treaty violations, such as the routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline.  

Still, Kanosh and other Native activists often struggle to attract the same level of attention as the Black Lives Matter movement. After Corey’s death, Kanosh organized protests in front of the county sheriff’s office but she found it difficult to generate much turnout. Part of it was geography: her tiny Paiute reservation parcel has just 13 homes on a single street and lies within southern Utah’s sparsely populated Millard County, where most residents are Mormon and lean conservative. The closest major city, Salt Lake City, is a four-hour drive away—too far for many of Kanosh’s Paiute neighbors.

Like Kanosh, Lanna felt compelled to share her brother’s story. She worried that Daniel would become just another invisible Native victim, erased by the stereotypes that seemed to obscure the blunt facts of his death.

In high school, Daniel Covarrubias had a run-in with the police after a girlfriend accused him of stealing her car. According to Lanna, police chased him to a friend’s house and the officers set their dogs on him as he lay on the ground. Neighbors wrote letters on Covarrubias’ behalf and he was never charged, but the incident, believes Lanna, sparked in him a fear of the police – a fear that may have led him to run when he heard sirens on that April day.

Later, Covarrubias struggled with addiction and depression. As an adult he had several minor run-ins with the law. But in the years before his death, Lanna saw that her brother had begun to get his life on track. In their neighborhood, he was known as the guy who would fix your car for free, and he enrolled in an auto-mechanic certification program so he could start his own business one day.  Every summer, he would take his kids into the woods to camp and fish and he often cooked dinner for his entire extended family. “He made the best salsa,” says Lanna.

Last year, the Covarrubias family joined members of the Puyallup tribe and other Washington civil rights groups in the push to pass a state bill that would make it easier to hold police officers criminally liable for a fatal shooting. Under Washington’s current legal standards, proof that an officer acted with “malice” is necessary to prosecute an officer for using deadly force — the only state in the country with such a requirement. Police are also safeguarded from prosecution if they had “good faith” belief that pulling the trigger was justifiable.

But the initiative was controversial; many police officers feared they would face prosecution for acting in legitimate self-defense. “There’s an impression that we use force all the time,” says Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro, noting that his department uses weapons in less than five percent of all arrests.

Ultimately the bill failed to garner enough signatures to go before the state legislature, but the Lakewood police department has implemented anti-bias training in an effort to address some of the issues underlying Covarrubias’ death.

For Zaro though, changing the law is not the solution. “It’s the relationship that needs working on,” says Zaro, referring to the dynamic between police and the Native American communities they serve.  “We need more communication, more seeing each other as individuals.”

Meanwhile, Lanna and her family will continue fighting for more police accountability and justice for her brother and other victims like him. Last month, they held a memorial for Covarrubias at the Church of Indian fellowship in Tacoma, Washington. Her brother was the glue that held the family together, says Lanna, remembering how, at the ceremony, each of them released balloon lanterns in his honor. For a few minutes they stood together, watching as the little globes of light drifted away into the sky. 

Correspondent Sarah Tory writes from Paonia, Colorado. She covers Utah, environmental justice and water issues.