Thank you for joining Indianz.com for this live interview with Dr. Yolanda Alanis and Orion Resting Hawk, two Native Americans living in Kenosha, Wisconsin, site of the latest police shooting of an unarmed black man and the site of civil unrest earlier this summer as activists sought the removal of a Columbus statue from a city park.
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In the early morning hours of Sunday, August 23, Stephanie Laducer found herself on the Turtle Mountain Indian reservation outside the home where her nephew, 38-year-old Brandon Laducer, had just been shot by the police. Minutes before he died, Stephanie said he spoke what would be some of his last words. “He said, ‘I love you auntie, you are one of the best people I know,’” she reportedly told Native News Online.
Days later, Stephanie, 48, would turn to Facebook to openly grieve. Brandon, she wrote, was like a son to her. “I have no doubt in my soul that [he] knew how much I loved him.”
Days after his death, she wasted little time helping to plan his parting. There was wood that needed to be chopped for his four-day spirit fire. A wake had to be scheduled at Fiddler’s Hall, and his mass had to be arranged at St. Ann’s Catholic Church. More than anything, the family wanted to make sure he was buried next to his grandmother, Delores Laducer.
In between all the preparations, though, for Stephanie, time would distance in learning why police had gunned down her nephew. All she knew was that law enforcement officers from four different surrounding agencies had barged into the home where Brandon had been killed. Some reports say five shots were fired, others say more. It would take two days before the Associated Press filed a brief, but not with many more leads. In the absence of such attention to the shooting, what the tribe’s chairman, Jamie Azure, called a “tragedy,” news instead spread via text message and across Facebook, what often typifies life on remote reservations — a deep sense of numbness and fatalism that manifests around a culture of ignored violence among Native Americans.
One state away in Bemidji, Minnesota, Michael Waasegiizhig Price, an Anishinaabe man and a member of Wikwemikong First Nations in Canada, had also turned to Facebook to lament over Brandon’s death. His son and Brandon were brothers, he said. He posted a meme that a nine-year-old Hopi girl had sent to him. It was bright and cheery and honored Brandon’s life. But the social media also laid bare the intensity of silence swelling around his death. “Native American people are not invisible!” Micheal declared in his post, repeating a tagline on the meme.
Less connected and further removed from the violence was another Indigenous individual burdened over what happened on Turtle Mountain. Lisa Gasner, a Squaxin/Nisqually/Chehalis writer and nonprofit advocate based in Oakland, CA, was far angrier over the killing. Lisa, who prefers the pronouns they/them/their, called what happened to Brandon “murder” while also expressing distrust for the American press. “I always look to Black, Indigenous and Poor Peoples sources for news on poLice killings to find Truth outside the kop narrative. [sic],” they wrote in a post on Facebook. Months into the national reckoning examining police reform and racial justice in the U.S., Lisa also dug into what has become a rising criticism of journalists' past record on how it reports on gun violence led by police. “This isn’t an “officer involved shooting,”” she wrote. “Brandon Laducer was murdered!”
Kevin Smith, the FBI’s Public Affairs Officer for the Minneapolis Division was tasked with controlling the public narrative. Because the shooting happened on the reservation, federal jurisdiction mandates the FBI’s involvement, even though agents were not on the ground the night Brandon was shot and killed. What Smith conveyed to a small pool of journalists was a limited statement: that agencies involved in the shooting included the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Rolette County Sheriff’s Office, the Rolette Police Department, and the Rolla Police Department. It would be the last and only statement the FBI would make on the case as it investigates, Smith emailed me. The next step, he said, would be to turn over the facts to the US Attorney’s Office in North Dakota for a charging decision.
Through piece-mealed information, a local news network also revealed that a BIA officer had been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. It was confirmed by Charles Addington (Cherokee), the Deputy Bureau Director for the BIA’s Office of Justice Services, a career-long law enforcement official with deep ties to Indian Country.
But a week after Brandon’s death, a father to two children, his family still doesn’t know exactly what happened — who shot him and over what. One thing is certain, some of the officers involved were Turtle Mountain tribal citizens, themselves. With unemployment on the reservation as high as almost sixty percent, policing is one of the few jobs available for area residents which, even tribal Chairman Azure said, complicates shootings like the one that ended fatally for Brandon.
A pair of memes in memory of Brandon Laducer, a 35-year-old Turtle Mountain Chippewa father who was killed by police gunfire on Aug. 23, 2020, on the Turtle Mountain reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. Images: Michael Wassegijig Price
Brandon, also a tribal citizen of Turtle Mountain, had lived in nearby Minot and Fargo before returning back to the reservation sometime after 2018. Court records trail his whereabouts from year to year, at first, documenting his struggle to maintain driving privileges in good standing, and once those problems mounted, drug charges soon entered the fray. By the spring of 2016, Brandon faced multiple drug possession allegations in Morton and Burlington counties, two districts most immediate to Bismarck, the North Dakota city roughly two-hundred miles south of Belcourt, where Brandon was killed. From those low-level charges, Brandon would sit in a state penitentiary for nearly two years before making his way back to Turtle Mountain.
Still, there is a sentiment among Natives that despite such criminal history, that doesn’t warrant police the right to kill.
Natives statewide have long griped about being pulled over by police for what they consider no good reason. “Driving while Indian,” they’d say. One glaring example of the police bias is the monthslong demonstration at Standing Rock where roughly eight-hundred people were arrested, including myself. The protests, while over an oil pipeline that threatened the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s water supply, the Missouri River, was ultimately a potent symbol to a centuries-long tension that has defined the cultural divide, statewide — a legacy premised on bloody land grabs by white settlers against an Indigenous resistance to colonization.
The lack of information since Brandon’s shooting has only compounded the acrimony, exposing the chronic injustices that have defined life in places like Turtle Mountain, a rural pocket tucked inside one of America’s most segregated states — North Dakota.
Brandon Laducer posted a photo of himself on Facebook on July 24, 2020.
Kenosha, the latest flashpoint
On the same day Brandon was killed on Aug. 23, drama unfolded with blood-curdled screams in a peaceful neighborhood in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A small crowd of onlookers witnessed Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, get shot in the back seven times by Rusten Shesky, a 31-year-old white police officer with Kenosha PD.
According to state officials, officers were responding to a domestic complaint when they attempted to arrest Jacob. Shesky tried to tase him, and when that failed to stop Jacob, the officer fired his gun on the man seven times at point-blank range.
Until Wednesday, much of what was known of the shooting was from video footage taken by a neighbor that showed Shesky shoot Jacob as he tried to get into his SUV. His children were reportedly in the backseat. Jacob survived, but today, is apparently paralyzed. His father told CNN, “My son is fighting for his life.”
In a tale of two shootings by police, Kenosha, not Turtle Mountain, has become the latest flashpoint in a summer of unrest sparked by the alleged murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis — largely because the facts are so clear and accessible. Also, the latest police gunfire is so easily couched within the greater Black Lives Matter movement.
The nationwide soul-searching has played out in protests in cities across America. In Kenosha, the uprising took a violent turn. Two demonstrators were killed Tuesday and a third was wounded in a shooting incident led by Kyle Rittenhouse, 17. Outrage sparked when the white teen, wielding a long firearm, was not immediately apprehended by police after conveying that he was there to protect the area from looting.
Tensions grew when reports surfaced that Jacob, immobile from the waist down, had been shackled to his hospital bed while heavily sedated. The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office removed the handcuffs and released Jacob from police custody after he posted bond for what court records show were for felony warrants filed several weeks before he was shot.
Kenosha officials have since issued a 7 p.m. curfew in an attempt to suppress the protests. Meanwhile, President Trump tweeted on Wednesday that he planned to deploy federal law enforcement officials to Kenosha and that Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, had agreed to help. Trump has been working to maintain the support he gained from the swing-state of Wisconsin, since winning their electoral votes in 2016.
Despite legitimate outrage over police brutality that grew Black Lives Matter seven years ago, this clarion call for racial justice has largely dwarfed the fact that Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other racial group in America. Per-capita, tribal citizens are twelve percent more likely to die by police violence than Black Americans and three times more than whites, according to the CDC.
Where Indigenous People live makes all the difference in the risks they face when confronting police. In 2017, NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health released results from a poll that showed more than half of Native Americans living on tribal lands or in towns and cities with large Native populations experienced higher rates of racial or ethnic discrimination when interacting with police compared to those living in less populated Native communities. It’s why more than a third (36 percent) of people said they avoid calling law enforcement or other authority figures, even when in need. Others say they’ve thought about moving (33 percent) because they’ve experienced discrimination or unequal treatment. For those in nonmajority areas, these numbers are almost three times lower — 14 and 11 percent, respectively.
Many of the most recent Native victims to police gun violence have centered in the Midwest — from Wisconsin to the Dakotas. The list of victims is long and largely overlooked. In 2017, at least 31 Indigenous people died during an interaction with law enforcement. In 2016, there were 29 fatalities reported. Here are a few of them, including some recent cases:
On April 14, 2019, Clarence Leading Fighter (Santee Sioux), 32, left behind a seven-year-old son the morning a Nebraska State Patrol deputy shot him in the back while attending Palm Sunday mass in the town of Rushville. Deputies said they were attempting to apprehend him in connection with an alleged assault that had taken place hours earlier. In August, a grand jury determined no officer would be charged with a crime.
Jonathon Tubby, a 26-year-old member of the Oneida Nation, ran a stop sign in downtown Green Bay, October 19, 2018. Police discovered he was wanted for failure to serve a jail sentence. Hours after the arrest, Tubby, still in handcuffs, lay dead in the jail’s “sally-port,” shot five times by officer Erik O’Brien who said he believed Tubby had a gun. The city denied any wrongdoing. His family has filed a civil suit against Officer O’Brien.
On November 14, 2017, fourteen-year-old Jason Pero was gunned down on his homelands on the Bad River reservation in northern Wisconsin by a border town police officer. Ashland County Sheriff’s Deputy Brock Mrdjenovich fatally shot Jason after responding to the teen’s own 9–1–1 call. Mrdjenovich claimed Jason had lunged at him with a knife and that he feared for his life. No charges were ever filed.
The family of George “Ryan” Gipp, Jr. of Standing Rock says the two BIA officers that tased and fatally shot him were unjustified actions and are now seeking damages. In Oct. 2017, Gipp was gunned down on the Standing Rock reservation in the community of Fort Yates, ND. After an FBI review, the U.S. attorney’s office in North Dakota determined that criminal charges against the officers were unwarranted.
On March 27, 2016, Loreal Tsingine, (Navajo), 27, was walking the streets of Winslow, Arizona, when she was fatally shot by officer Austin Shipley. Police bodycam footage shows Shipley push Tsingine to the ground twice before she got up and walked to her death. She showed no signs of wielding a weapon despite the officer’s claims. In May 2019, a federal court dismissed the Navajo Nation’s lawsuit seeking justice.
Corey Kanosh, 35, of the Kanosh Band of Paiutes was killed the night he was a passenger in a police chase involving a drunk driver. When the car stopped, he fled on foot and was fatally shot. It happened on October 15, 2012. Since then his sister Marlee along with several other survivors who have similarly lost relatives to such violence have been running the Facebook page, Native Lives Matter, perhaps the most sobering account of the dozens of Indigenous lives lost to police gunfire in America.
Problems of policing Indian Country
On Turtle Mountain, a six-mile by twelve-mile reservation, there’s a lot where a couple of dozen used mobile homes donated by North Dakota’s Air Force base sit cut open like cadavers, their bodies exposing half living rooms and kitchens where weathered plastic tarps meant to shield these spaces flap in the brisk prairie wind.
A chronic housing shortage in the community is a major factor believed to be behind Turtle Mountain’s high crime rate, according to tribal officials. With a citizenry of thirty-thousand people, roughly 5,800 live on the main reservation; another 2,500 reside on off-reservation trust lands. The Canadian border, a twenty-minute drive north from Belcourt, makes the community, checkerboarded by white ranchlands, as rural as North Dakota gets — which has posed unique challenges for policing the area.
In recent years, Chairman Azure has been experimenting with what he calls a “hybrid police” approach in providing public safety across the reservation, one of the most densely populated tribal communities across Indian Country.
Last year, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs conducted a field hearing in North Dakota, requesting testimony from the state’s tribal leaders about the many obstacles law enforcement face. Some of the most pervasive challenges, nationwide, have been addressing extreme rates of violent crime and drug trafficking complicated by a lack of police resources. Add to this the complex jurisdictional framework behind reservation-based life and the situation is not a one-size-fits-all scenario.
Chairman Azure, a 42-year-old father to two young daughters, testified before lawmakers nearly baldheaded from a fundraising bet he made with a Native nonprofit. He explained to the Committee that while the BIA has direct jurisdiction over the reservation, there was a shortage of officers. He also discussed the defunct tribal jail. And because the tribe lacked law enforcement and places to put inmates, it meant it rendered its tribal criminal court nearly obsolete in prosecuting one of its most persistent crimes: drug dealing. He blamed BIA bureaucracy for delays in filling a position that could help turn things around — a drug enforcement specialist job that has been vacant since August 2017.
“So we are basically handcuffed. We can’t prosecute in our tribal courts. Our law enforcement is stressed to the limit. We do not have enough law enforcement people with badges,” Azure told lawmakers.
As a workaround, the chairman sought support from area law enforcement in the neighboring communities of Rolla and Rollette. In 2015, Turtle Mountain received an estimated $150-thousand dollars from the Department of Justice to begin growing an inter-agency drug task force. It was a win for everyone considering that the Rolette County Sheriff’s Office had resorted to breakfast fundraisers to help purchase much-needed police equipment such as Tasers.
Another gain from the cross-jurisdictional coalition was response times. Because the reservation is a grid of BIA numbered roads where homes have no addresses, it makes locating emergencies a guessing game for even the most familiar patroller on Turtle Mountain. To emphasize this point, Chairman Azure described how a tribal member, in an effort to save his father from a heart attack, had to flag down an ambulance as it circled back and forth in front of his house.
“This was only two years ago. Luckily, he survived,” said Azure.
But the one issue the tribal leader returned to more than anything was drug trafficking.
“The sad facts are that the bad people know the loopholes better than the good people. We see it every day in a lot of our casinos,” he said, branding the perpetrators as mostly outsiders or non-tribal members. “They know they are going to get a slap on the wrist.”
Chairman Azure, again, emphasized to lawmakers the tribe’s inter-agency law enforcement coalition as a creative solution that was working. Six months later, the task force, in a sting operation on the reservation, seized roughly $18,500 in prescription pills and $19,000 more in cash and 100 grams of marijuana. Several guns were also taken in the bust. Three non -tribal members— Terrance Johnson, Antony Wade, and Devante Edwards — were arrested in the sting.
While it’s unclear whether Chairman Azure’s task force was the same coalition of law enforcement officers that killed Brandon on Aug. 23, it clears up how and why city and county police were able to exercise force on the reservation despite tribal trust lands falling under federal jurisdiction. Whether Brandon’s criminal history with drugs had anything to do with police presence that night is information only the FBI’s investigation will reveal.
More Attention Needed
As relatives made their way to Belcourt over the weekend, Michael, the First Nations father, remained in Minnesota. “I would have been Brandon’s stepdad if his mom and I would have stayed together,” he said. Instead, the child they had together, now 18, would be the bond that, lately, has made him reflect on the dangers facing his son.
“So many young Native men have been killed here in Bemidji, but no one knows, nor seems to care,” said Micheal who works as a traditional knowledge keeper for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission. It was enough to make him think hard about the safety of Brandon’s half-brother.
“I worry about him every hour of every day in this town.”
Indigenous invisibility to the violence imposed on Native Americans has been as chronic as the police violence, itself. A general notion shared among experts across Indian Country is that the data of Indigenous deaths from police encounters is probably an undercount. Add to this an analysis that shows disinterest or poor reporting of these cases on behalf of American news outlets big and small, and it’s easy to understand Micheal’s concerns.
Brandon’s death is emblematic of the silence. The results of his FBI investigation won’t be revealed for weeks if not months, a far cry from the steady stream of news updates centering around the case of Jacob Blake. And by the time the US Attorney’s Office will release its findings, the chances of Brandon’s case getting any attention are slim.
For all the issues raised around the problems of policing Indian Country, most recently by Trent Shores, Chair of the Attorney General William Barr’s Advisory Subcommittee on Native American Issues (NAIS), none of the recommendations have included an enhanced public relations approach on behalf of the FBI and the BIA as a way to heighten awareness of these problems in the press.
“I have seen violent crime and substance abuse continue to occur at higher rates in Indian country than anywhere else in the United States,” said Shores (Choctaw) in a statement to the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.
In this regard, how can some of the worst cases of violence in America— including police gun violence — not be considered in this moment? If we are at all to begin truly judging the cracks of justice in America, it must begin in Indian Country.
Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Walking for Justice in Omaha -- Memorial Walk for Zachary Bear Heels
Since the protests erupted over the death of George Floyd, the uprising in America and around the world has showed no signs of slowing down. And Indigenous Peoples have, in small ways, found their place in this moment.
When a Kentucky contingent including members of Breonna Taylor’s family traveled to the Colorado State Capitol for a ‘Say Their Names’ rally last week, onboard the caravan was Lynn Eagle Feather, the mother of 35-year-old Paul Castaway, the Oglala Sioux man who was shot and killed by Denver police on July 12, 2015.
Security video shows Paul running and crouching behind a wooden fence, raising a knife to his own neck, as police chased him. His mother was the one who called 9-1-1 to tell them her son was suicidal; she had requested their support. Instead, they shot him. The DA said the shooting was justified.
“My son needed help,” Eagle Feather said before the crowd. “He didn’t need to be killed.”
Also last week, the Omaha City Council unanimously voted to approve a $550,000 settlement to the family of Zachary Bear Heels. The 29-year-old Kiowa man was tased and beaten to death outside an Omaha, Nebraska, convenience store on the night of June 5, 2017. Omaha police officer Scotty Payne was fired, but three others with him had their jobs reinstated.
“No amount of money is ever going to bring him back,” Bear Heels' mother, Renita Chalepah told Indianz.Com. “My life is just — it’s still destroyed because I got to live with this now.”
In Minneapolis Friday, as protesters took to the streets calling for justice for Jacob Blake, at least one sign was seen in a sea of others calling for justice for Bandon Laducer, too. On the poster board was scribbled his last words spoken to his Auntie Stephanie.
That night, Stephanie’s family had finished lighting Brandon’s spirit fire and she said a few final words in a sweat. “When it’s my time to go…i know you will b the first one to greet me,” she wrote on Facebook.
Jenni Monet is a journalist and tribal citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna. She reports on Indigenous rights and injustice in the U.S. and the world. This article originally appeared independently at Indigenously.