Lowicha Lake Falls-Rock says he was a troubled young man with a drinking problem, but he found the path to sobriety when he met spiritual leaders who took him to Sundances and Native American Church ceremonies.
From there, he worked in gang prevention, but unsatisfied with his heavy caseload and the impact he was making, he accepted a position at the Nez Perce Tribal Police Department and moved to the reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, in August 2014. He thought he was making a change that would put him in a better position to be a positive example and change agent for struggling youth, he said.
“They hired me because I’m a traditionalist who goes to ceremony, who doesn’t do drugs, and who can relate to people on the reservation,” he said. “When I was off-duty, I’d go to sweat with (community members) and engage with the community.”
But Lake Falls-Rock, 25, now believes those traditional beliefs that helped him get hired also led to his firing after nearly six months of working with a field training officer (FTO). He was on a probationary period, meaning he could be fired at any time, but he has filed a complaint with the Nez Perce tribal council.
He said his FTOs would constantly bring up his attendance at sweats and ceremonies, and on December 29, 2014, he said he had a “pivotal” conversation with FTO Mike Stegner, who he alleges asked him, “Well, what’s important to you: Your sweats and your ceremonies or your job?”
Lake Falls-Rock said the FTOS expressed concern that there were “addicts” and “known offenders” in attendance with him at the sweats and ceremonies.
“I wasn’t there to bring down the hammer,” Lake Falls-Rock said. “I wanted to serve the community.”
At the advice of a trusted elder, he told a supervising officer about the incident, and four days later he was abruptly fired, he said.
The Nez Perce Tribal Police Chief David Rogers said it was untrue that Lake Falls-Rock was fired for his religious beliefs and many of his Native officers currently attend sweats and ceremonies. He added he couldn’t comment any further due to the complaint filed by Lake Falls-Rock.
Rogers said 13 of the force’s 20 officers responsible for patrolling about 1,200 square-miles are Native, and one of the four FTOs are Native. Lake Falls-Rock estimated less than half are Native, and alleged the officers responsible for his firing were all non-Native.
“I don’t think they liked that I stood up for my religious beliefs,” he said. “I think they push this ‘us and them’ mentality. They only wanted me to hang out with other cops.”
Lake Falls-Rock said he is currently looking for jobs with other tribal police departments, and he hopes the complaint ensures that future tribal police officers are able to attend ceremonies and sweats without fearing for their job.
“We’re pretty destitute since we didn’t come here with any money, and they could kick us out of our housing within 30 days,” he said. “There was no notice this was coming, so it really put us in a tough situation. It’s frustrating because I was doing a good job.”
The president of the local chapter of the Native American Church and a Nez Perce tribal member Lee Whiteplume said Lake Falls-Rock had told him about the conversation with Stegner shortly after it happened, and he urged him to talk to a supervisor about it.
He said it would be disappointing and counterproductive to good police work if Lake Falls-Rock’s allegations prove true.
“I think it was an awesome thing. It’d be no different than going to a Catholic Mass where you never know who’s going to show up,” he said. “Any form of prayer is good in my book, especially for officers who are dealing with and seeing a lot of gruesome scenes.”