February 11, 2016
Bringing Native American Stories to a National Audience
Journalists must move past stereotypes to forge deeper connections with an underrepresented population
On a cold winter’s night, a few minutes after 6 p.m., police in Rapid City, South Dakota were called to a house in the Lakota Community Homes development where Allen Locke and his family were living. Locke, 30, was drunk, his wife said, and she wanted him out of the house until he sobered up.
The responding officer, Anthony Meirose, found Locke on the kitchen floor. As Locke stood up, the officer noticed a steak knife in his hand. Meirose told investigators that he heard Locke say “It’s a good day to die,” and that he ordered Locke several times to drop the knife, according to a report from the South Dakota Division of Criminal investigation (DCI). When he didn’t, Meirose fired five shots at him. Locke was pronounced dead at the hospital. The South Dakota DCI determined that Locke had lunged at the officer, though his wife says she witnessed the incident and disputes this. No charges were filed against Meirose.
The killing of Allen Locke on that cold night just before Christmas in 2014 got little attention outside Rapid City. Nor, in the year or so since, has there been much widespread coverage of the killings of Paul Castaway, shot in Denver in July by police who said he was threatening his mother, though she argues that deadly force was unnecessary in this incident; William J. Dick III, a 28-year-old suspected armed robber who died in Washington State after a U.S. Forest Service agent shocked him with a Taser; or Larry Kobuk, 33, who died after being restrained by officers booking him into the Anchorage Correctional Complex on charges that he stole a car and drove it with a suspended license.
All of these people were Native Americans.
The day before his death, Locke, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe of Pine Ridge, and about 100 other people took part in a march in Rapid City calling for better treatment by police of Native Americans. “Hands up. Don’t shoot,” the protesters chanted under gray skies and in chilly temperatures. There is, one speaker at the rally said, “an undeclared race war here in South Dakota.”
Police kill Native Americans at almost the same rate as African-Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Between 1999 and 2013, an average of .29 per 100,000 Native Americans were killed by police, compared to .3 per 100,000 for blacks and .11 per 100,000 for whites. “America should be aware of this,” argues Chase Iron Eyes, a lawyer and a leader of the Lakota People’s Law Project, which runs a publicity campaign called Native Lives Matter. But for the most part, America is not aware of this.
That may be changing, albeit slowly, as both mainstream media and Native American-run digital outlets begin to cover American Indian issues more robustly.
In some ways, Native American cultures are worlds unto themselves, but increasingly they are part of bigger issues that transcend their borders. Take energy, especially with the extensive drilling of oil on Native American land in North Dakota and elsewhere. National energy issues are Native American issues, too. There is an urgent need for more investigative reporting on Native American issues, but such projects are hampered by a lack of press freedoms on Native American lands and a shortage of journalists―Native American and otherwise―who understand the culture as well as the politics and legal intricacies of Native American life, says Mary Hudetz, a former president of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) and the former editor of Native Peoples Magazine.