Indian community, Denver County coroner's office help each other
DENVER - The April 13 death of a homeless Native man along a busy thoroughfare may foster collaboration between members of the Indian community and the Denver County coroner's office. According to members of an ad hoc action group, it may ultimately help the transient population.
George Chase Alone Jr., 47, Oglala Sioux, whose family is from the Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D., and Howard Lawrence Huntsinger, 44, who was not identified as Native, were recently found dead of undetermined causes near Speer Boulevard and Colfax Avenue in downtown Denver.
''It is tragic that there is no contact with us when our people fall victim in such circumstances,'' said Kim Cameron, president of the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce, who convened the meeting
of community members and a coroner's representative who was invited to present information. ''At least this is a start.''
Don Bell, chief investigator in the Denver County Office of the Medical Examiner, told the group that of approximately 5,000 deaths reviewed by the coroner each year, perhaps two or three represent unidentified bodies, and those are not necessarily of indigenous people.
Through fingerprint records and other databases, most individuals, including transients, can be identified, he said.
The real difficulty is in finding the families - Native and non-Native - of bodies sent to the coroner's office to determine the cause and means of death, because ''we live in a very transient society,'' he said, adding that it is sometimes difficult to identify a body as that of an indigenous person by appearance alone.
In a recent year, there were seven deaths of Native transients in Denver, said Antoinette Red Woman, Northern Cheyenne, who works with the homeless and conducts the nonprofit Red Earth People's Lodge. Two apparent homicides of Indian men in 2004 and 2005 remain unsolved.
Determining whether a death is a homicide involves parallel investigations by medical examiner and police officials, and the process does not always work perfectly, Bell said.
The meeting touched on related needs of homeless Natives in urban areas, including the way they are perceived by others.
Margaret Tyon, a community elder and activist, said homeless Indian people often go by her house and like to stop to talk to her in the Lakota language.
''They're not bad people the way some people say they are,'' she said. ''They don't hurt anybody.''
Others said that social services available to the homeless are limited and may not be culturally appropriate.
A meeting will be held with Denver police officials to discuss Chase Alone's death and the deaths of other Native people in the area. Other plans are for:
*Learning the Denver Police Department's policy on dealing with Native people on the streets (in conjunction with CopWatch, a police accountability organization).
*Creating a homeless task force network that could be linked by e-mail to circulate descriptions and photos of unidentified Indian people, and a Web site.
*Imparting cultural competency information about funerary practices.
*Creating photo ID cards for transients, which would include tribal affiliation and next-of-kin information.
*Coordinating with the Colorado Coroners Association, which covers 64 counties.
*Patrolling areas frequented by Native transients, using young activist volunteers.
*Continuing efforts to identify or create successful Native-centered shelters and/or a substance abuse treatment program.
Those meeting with the coroner's chief investigator at the Four Winds Survival Project in central Denver included people affiliated with Denver Indian Center, Denver Indian Health and Family Services, the American Indian Movement of Colorado, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Iliff School of Theology, University of Colorado - Denver, Denver American Indian Advisory Committee and Service Corporation International-Olinger Moore Howard Chapel. Participants represented a variety of tribal backgrounds.
Chase Alone had lived about 15 years in Denver, where he sometimes did odd jobs. He grew up on Pine Ridge but moved to Rapid City, S.D., when he was in his early teens and before coming to Colorado.