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Native Lives Matter—Puyallups Take the Lead in Washington State

Under the Puyallup umbrella, a group has organized to gather 250,000 signatures needed for an initiative for police accountability in Washington state.

It is a bright morning, and we are in a small crab vessel in Puget Sound, north of Tacoma, Washington. Puyallup tribal member James Rideout is baiting and tossing overboard some dozen wire-mesh crab pots. As we navigate the sound, with its forested islands and peninsulas, Mount Rainier’s massive snow-covered peak seems to glide around the horizon, slipping behind one hilly shoreline then another. Toward evening, Rideout will return to collect the crabs. They’ll be cooked for one of the regular family meetings that has followed the police shooting of his niece, Jackie Salyers.

Shortly before midnight on January 28 of this year, Tacoma patrol officers killed Salyers during a failed attempt to apprehend her boyfriend, who was wanted on drugs and weapons charges. Minutes after the officers approached the couple, one of them had shot Salyers in the head, and the boyfriend had escaped into the night. A mother of four, Salyers was pregnant at the time of her death.

At Salyers’s funeral service, her mother, Lisa Earl, called for justice—not only for her daughter, but on behalf of everyone impacted by police violence.

The Puyallup Tribe took up the challenge, under the banner Justice for Jackie, Justice for All. As they continued to meet, as a family and as a community, to deal with their grief and shock, others in the region who had similar experiences and concerns started joining them. This makes sense culturally to the Puyallup, whose name in their language translates as “the generous and welcoming people.”

Rideout explains: “When the police killings happened to people who didn’t have a tribe to back them up, they were alone, on their own. When our tribe took a position on this issue, we realized we had an opportunity to take care of them all, to bring them along with us.”

Joe Zummo

Puyallup tribal council member Tim Reynon has been appointed to a Washington state commission on police violence.

As time went by, non-Natives and members of other tribes began to join the family gatherings at the tribe’s Little Wild Wolves Youth/Community Center. In a traditional talking circle, they told stories of tragedy and survival then shared a meal. Participants at a recent meeting included African American mother Crystal Chaplin, whose two sons were shot (both survived, but one is paralyzed), and Silvia Sabon, Tlingit, whose family lost a young Latino friend. They and other attendees talked about feeling welcome and safe on the reservation—sheltered within the space Puyallups had created for those who need to express their feelings to supportive, nonjudgmental listeners.

The group that has gathered under the Puyallup umbrella has both organized and attended protest marches. Along with other advocacy groups, group members are gathering the 250,000 signatures needed for a ballot initiative that would improve police accountability in the state. Other tribes, groups such as the NAACP and individuals have joined them. If successful, the initiative would place before the legislature a measure to remove an escape clause in Washington law for officers who kill.

Currently, Washington police who use lethal force cannot be charged with a criminal offense unless it can be proven that they acted with malice. Since malice is a state of mind, it is impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, says Tacoma attorney Ben Barcus. (If the bill passes, deadly force would still be allowed under circumstances already defined in the law, such as when an individual may cause “serious physical harm” to an officer or others.)

One of Barcus’s clients is Marilyn Covarrubias, whose son Daniel, a Suquamish tribal member, was gunned down in 2014 by Lakewood, Washington, officers who claimed to have mistaken his cell phone for a gun. Barcus is preparing a civil case that will seek monetary damages to help provide for Daniel’s seven children. Marilyn describes her son, who was 37 when he died, as a beadwork artist, horseman and devoted dad, who loved to have fun with his children and nieces and nephews.

“Every one of them has been deeply and terribly affected,” Marilyn says. “A good man was lost.”

Advocate Lisa Hayes, of Olympia, Washington, who wrote the ballot-initiative text, says it has started a statewide conversation. “We want the discussion of police shootings and use of excessive and deadly force to be at every dinner table and on every porch,” Hayes says. “This is one reason the initiative idea is so powerful.”

Though many throughout the state are helping gather signatures, Hayes believes the economically and politically powerful Puyallup Tribe is critical to the effort. “Change will happen,” Hayes says. “It is long past time, and the involvement of the tribe will be a big part of this.” In a recent development, tribal council member Tim Reynon has been appointed to a statewide commission on the police-violence issue.

Washington is not the only state that has seen its share of Native killings by police. According to Mike Males, senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 1999–2014 data from CDC medical examiners shows that Natives are more likely to be killed by police than any other group. When the fatalities are divided by age, Natives 20–24, 25–34 and 35–44 are three of the top five groups to lose their lives during arrest or while in custody prior to sentencing, Males says. The other two groups are African-Americans 20–24 and 25–30.

Yet little attention has been paid to the Native deaths, even as the country has been shocked and periodically convulsed by riots after other police killings. In a research paper on this national blind spot presented in April, Roger Chin, Jean Schroedel and Lily Rowen found that in six states—Mississippi, South Dakota, Idaho, Washington, Alaska and North Dakota—death rates for Native Americans ranged from a high of 1.19 down to .27 per 10,000 population. All six were higher than the highest rate for African Americans–in California, at .19 deaths per 10,000. In 87 percent of the cases, the Natives were shot or died in the custody of off-reservation police, says Chin.

The focus of the paper was measuring the media coverage of police killings of Natives, and thereby public awareness of them. To do this, the researchers looked for articles about deaths-by-cop in the top 10 U.S. newspapers by circulation—the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today and others—over a recent 15-month period. The only sustained look at a Native death in that timeframe among these major papers was in the Denver Post. The remaining coverage comprised incidental mentions of Daniel Covarrubias’ death, adding up to a few hundred words; in some cases, he was identified as Latino. Meanwhile, these newspapers utilized many hundreds of thousands of words in many hundreds of articles to report on the issue of police violence.

Joe Zummo

A multigenerational Puyallup crew affirms a connection to the water, the earth and each other.

Chin, Schroedel and Rowen noted that racial issues in the United States tend to be framed as involving blacks and whites, while other groups are ignored. The researchers cautioned, however, that their goal was not to criticize the ample and important reporting on non-Native deaths and the excellent work by Black Lives Matter advocates and families. Nor did they seek to judge whether police actions were justified. Rather, it was to ask whether the lack of reporting on Native deaths indicates that Native lives are devalued to an extreme degree and their issues swept aside by both the public and policy-makers.

Indigenous people see maintaining their cultures as a bulwark against despair. A Salyers cousin, Chester Earl, is chairman of the Puyallup tribal canoe society. On another pleasant morning, he supervised dozens of tribal members—from kindergartners to retirees—as they practiced for an upcoming multi-tribal canoe journey, working on technique and building strength as they plied the reservation shoreline.

Earl points out that historically canoeing was more than a way to get around. It was an expression of cooperation, caring and a spiritual relationship to the world. “Our connection to the water kept us alive,” Earl says.

Says Rideout: “None of us who have lost family and friends to police violence will ever really get justice, because nothing will bring them back. But we can work together to ensure that this kind of thing never happens again.”

This article was written with the support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.