Within the heart of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal jurisdiction in western Oklahoma sits Custer County. The county’s namesake made a name for himself as an “Indian Fighter” by attacking Black Kettle’s village on the Washita River in 1868—four years after Black Kettle survived the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864.
In the past few years, Custer has found itself linked again to the mysterious deaths of Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members. On June 28, 2012, police officers in the city of Clinton, within Custer County, shot and killed 34-year-old Benjamin Whiteshield outside of their police station. According to the Oklahoman, Whiteshield’s family took him to the police station to get help for an alleged delusional episode. The report said that Whiteshield was armed with a crescent wrench, but nothing in the news report stated whether or not he threatened or attacked any police officers.
The end of 2013 saw another Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal member, Mah-hi-vist (Red Bird) Touching Cloud Goodblanket, die under questionable circumstances. Although details of the case are still pending and under investigation, several details have surfaced about the shooting near Clinton.
Before December 21, 18-year-old Goodblanket had his whole life ahead of him. Raised in a traditional home, he had already toured Europe as a youth ambassador in his early teens. Graduating high school one year ahead of schedule, he began his college education at Haskell Indian Nations University and was in the midst of transferring to the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribal College in nearby Weatherford, which is also in Custer County. He had also met the love of his young life.
“I would say that this young man was full of love, respect and honor for all ancient knowledge, tribal customs, and ceremonies,” said his mother, Melissa Goodblanket. “Fun-loving, he liked to make people laugh. Always had a hello for all his relatives, wherever he may have seen them.”
Goodblanket said that her son had been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder four years previously, and had triggers that caused him to become upset on occasion. On the night of Goodblanket’s death, the family was preparing to attend a Native American Church service near El Reno, east of Clinton, in neighboring Canadian County. Goodblanket’s girlfriend had been visiting the family at their home, and the plan was to drop her off at her family’s home in Weatherford. However, Goodblanket misunderstood and thought his girlfriend was leaving him to end the relationship. In anger, he broke his bedroom window and damaged parts of the home.
Goodblanket’s father, Wilbur Goodblanket, called 911.
“My son was tearing up things,” said Wilbur. “He was breaking things. We were more concerned for him hurting himself. I was talking to him at the same time as I was [talking to 911]. At some point, I remember hanging up, because I was trying to calm him down also. We were standing outside, in front of the house.”
Goodblanket’s mother called 911 a second time, asking when assistance would arrive. The parents weren’t concerned about their own safety as much as for their son’s well-being. Although Melissa said she didn’t see a weapon, she told 911 “I think he has a knife.”
An ambulance and officers arrived on the scene, according to accounts from both the Goodblanket family and the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune. Melissa Goodblanket said she requested an assessment from the paramedics. “I was ignored,” she said. Wilbur Goodblanket asked the officers “Don’t shoot my son. Tase him.”
Four officers—two from the Custer County Sheriff’s Department and two Oklahoma Highway Patrol officers—entered the home while the Goodblanket family waited outside. Melissa and Wilbur Goodblanket said it wasn’t long—no more than 45 seconds—until their son’s girlfriend ran out of the house screaming “They shot Bird.”
When the body of Mah-hi-vist was brought out of the house, he was already bagged to be transported to Oklahoma City for the medical examiner's office. Melissa insisted that she be allowed to pray over her son, which was allowed by investigators. It would be another five days—Thursday January 26—when Melissa and Wilbur would see the body of their son at the funeral home. Wilbur said that he counted seven entry wounds.
Indian Country Today Media Network asked Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples if a Taser was used on Goodblanket. Although he declined to comment as to the specifics of the investigation, he said that a Taser was used and that Goodblanket was armed. A report in the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune on January 1 quoted Peoples stating that Goodblanket threw knives at officers and that one officer shot his own hand off. When asked about the officer, Peoples told ICTMN the officer “lost a finger.”
Jessica Brown, spokesperson for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), said that the reports are sealed and could take up to six weeks to complete. Although the death has been ruled a homicide with “multiple gunshot wounds” by the state medical examiner’s office, toxicology reports will take the longest to finalize. Upon completion, OSBI will submit the report to the district attorney, and he will decide whether to pursue criminal charges.
The Goodblanket shooting shares similarities to another recent shooting, that of Keith Vidal in Boiling Spring Lakes, North Carolina. In this case, parents called for assistance with their son, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. According to CNN, lethal force was used against Vidal after three officers arrived on the scene.
The Whiteshield, Goodblanket and Vidal shootings all raise the question of the adequacy of mental health training for police officers. Although mental health statutes are published in the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Handbook regarding emergency detention and the transfer of mentally unstable suspects to mental health facilities, little is written in regards to deputies dealing with call concerning those who may be mentally unstable. Ray McNair, the executive director of the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association, said that it was up to each sheriff’s department to create their own policy and procedure.
“There’s nothing blanket in regards to policy and procedure,” said McNair. “No one from [Oklahoma Department of] Mental Health [and Substance Abuse] has established a policy and procedure that I know of.”
McNair said that most training in mental health takes place during police coursework. Following this, two hours of mental health training are required per year as part of a deputy sheriff’s continuing education training.
However, the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police has stronger criteria for municipal police departments dealing with mental health issues. Their crisis evaluation includes establishing whether a person is a danger to self or others on a case by case basis. According to OACP executive director Phil Cotten, Oklahoma’s larger cities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Norman have Crisis Intervention Teams with at least 40 hours of training in crisis mental health situations.
When compared with these larger cities, county sheriff departments “don’t have the opportunity to get trained as much or as often,” said Cotten, for dealing with mental health issues.
With the loss of their son, the Goodblanket family is working to bring awareness regarding the need for improved training for law enforcement.
“We want people to be aware so that [my son’s] life stands for something beautiful and can initiate change on the planet,” said Melissa Goodblanket. “These types of atrocities shouldn’t happen to anyone, anywhere. There needs to be change in policy, change in training.”
Standing with the Goodblanket family is their extended families within the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. Ida Hoffman, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes’ Chief of Staff, said that tribal members have not had a favorable relationship with Custer County law enforcement and voiced support for the Goodblanket family.
“This is something of such tragedy for our tribe,” said Hoffman. “We’re not going to let it go. We’re going to stand behind the family and do everything we can as a tribe to help them.”