Chippewa Cree man's shooting by police raises questions, calls for dialogue
By Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today
Residents of a community near Seattle where a Native American man was shot and killed by a police officer say they will continue to push for dialogue on issues related to race, as well as additional police training in cultural competency, de-escalation and mental health.
Stonechild Chiefstick, 39, a Chippewa Cree man with ties to the Suquamish Tribe, was fatally shot July 3 in a crowded waterfront park in Poulsbo, west of the Suquamish Reservation, before a community fireworks show.
Officer Craig Keller attempted to detain Chiefstick on suspicion of assault; police and witnesses say Chiefstick resisted arrest and threatened Keller with a screwdriver.
Leaders of the Suquamish Tribe say evidence shows Chiefstick may have been having problems related to mental health or substance abuse and that police could have de-escalated the situation and removed him from the park during one of two earlier encounters that day.
County Prosecutor Chad Enright determined on April 17 — nine months after the shooting — that it was justified. Keller, who had been on administrative leave pending Enright’s report, is back on the job but faces an internal investigation into whether he followed his police department’s policy regarding use of force.
Working to build bridges
Poulsbo City Councilman Ed Stern, council liaison to the Suquamish Tribe, is proposing the annual 3rd of July fireworks show be moved to the Fourth of July, so the event doesn’t take place on the anniversary of Chiefstick’s death. He’s also proposing a Poulsbo-First Nations Healing Circle so the community conversation can continue regarding bias and equity.
In addition, Stern said the Suquamish Tribe will be invited to install a representation of the Suquamish culture — either art or signage — at a new traffic roundabout near Highway 305, which bisects the city and the Suquamish reservation.
Trishandra Takenalive, Chiefstick’s ex-wife, plans to work with the organization Deescalate Washington for a law requiring that police-involved shootings be investigated by agencies from other counties. The shooting of Chiefstick was investigated by the Kitsap Critical Incident Response Team, composed of officers from law enforcement agencies in Kitsap County.
“In Kitsap County, if you’re in law enforcement, you know each other,” Takenalive said. “It’s not an outside investigation.”
The Suquamish Tribal Council has called for more training in cultural competency, de-escalation and mental health to reduce police shootings, especially those involving people with mental illness. The tribe provides funding to the Poulsbo Police Department and other state and local law enforcement agencies for equipment and training.
“We are expecting renewed assurances that this funding is being used to reduce harm to human life, as intended,” the council wrote in an opinion piece submitted to local media.
And allies say they’ll continue to work to build bridges of understanding between non-Indians and the Native community.
The Rev. Jessica Star Rockers, who helped organize an interfaith gathering March 2 in the Suquamish Tribe’s House of Awakened Culture longhouse, said another gathering will take place once the COVID-19 pandemic is over and large groups can again safely gather.
At the First Lutheran Church in Poulsbo, the Rev. Kent Shane said he and his congregation begin each worship service with an acknowledgement that the land they worship on is within the historical territory of the Suquamish people.
“There are different pictures of what justice is in the Suquamish Tribe and among non-Indians,” Shane said. “I trust law enforcement is doing the best they can, but there are a different set of questions when you’re not a white person.”
Shane participated in the March 2 interfaith gathering at the House of Awakened Culture.
“It was eye-opening to have that welcome, to hear the feelings of the family,” he said. People prayed together. A tribal member drummed and offered a song. There were small-group discussions.
Shane said he and his church want to be part of the healing, to help people come together “and just be together until we become a ‘we.’” He acknowledges, “I don’t know how to build that.” But for reference on how people should see each other, he referred to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians in the New Testament of the Bible: All people, regardless of ethnicity or origin or pigmentation in their skin, are children of God, of the Creator.
“God has said we’re all in — ‘Because you’re mine, so is the person standing next to you,’” Shane said. “We are all one.”
To tribe and allies, questions remain
Chiefstick and his son, Kane, participated in the 1.5-mile walk Feb. 26, 2012, from Pier 57 to Seattle Center, helping to carry the 34-foot totem pole that would be erected as a memorial to Nuu-chah-nulth wood carver John T. Williams, who was shot to death by a Seattle police officer.
On July 3, 2019, Chiefstick, too, would be dead.
Prosecutor Enright determined the shooting was justified based in large part on the testimony of numerous witnesses who said Chiefstick pulled a screwdriver and lunged at officers responding to a report he had threatened someone at the park.
But to local tribal leaders and allies of the Native American community, questions remain:
One, why didn’t police ask Chiefstick to leave the park earlier?
According to an investigation summary, Poulsbo Police Officer Michael Miulli questioned Chiefstick twice before the shooting. The first encounter, at 7:40 p.m., was spurred by a report from Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson that a man in the park, who turned out to be Chiefstick, was “exhibiting strange behavior” and was possibly under the influence. In the investigation report, Miulli said Chiefstick smelled of alcohol and he believed him to be intoxicated, but he let him go after Chiefstick declined an offer of medical attention.
Miulli questioned Chiefstick again, at 8:20 p.m., in response to reports from event-goers that he was "creeping people out," "intimidating people" and "staring people down." Chiefstick denied acting that way.
In police body camera video, Chiefstick is heard making some remarks that were incoherent. An investigator who reviewed the body cam video observed that Chiefstick “repeatedly crossed his arms with his hands placed into his armpits in a ‘defensive/deceptive’ body language” and “seems to make concerted eye contact-leering at the faces of person[s] who pass by him during his interaction with law enforcement.”
Still, officers again let him go. “We didn’t believe he had committed any crime,” Poulsbo Police Chief Dan Schoonmaker told Indian Country Today, adding that public intoxication is not a crime in Washington. “Unless a crime has been committed, we’re not going to forcibly remove someone from a park,” he said.
State law authorizes police to take an individual who is publicly intoxicated into protective custody, with or without the individual’s consent.
Chiefstick was shot an hour later and died in the ambulance while waiting to be airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. The autopsy confirmed he had been under the influence of alcohol and methamphetamine.
Two, why didn’t an officer use a Taser instead of firing a gun in a crowded park?
One officer reported that he had placed his hand on his stun gun but did not pull it out. By the time he “started to open the retention lock holding that Taser in its holster, I heard two shots.”
Leaders of the Suquamish Tribe wrote in the opinion piece submitted to local media that Chiefstick “could have been asked to leave the crowded July 3 gathering when it was evident that he was experiencing either a mental health or substance abuse episode. That opportunity was clearly present during the first encounter with the police. … Had police officers used de-escalation methods and more skillfully handled the interaction, the encounter could have ended peacefully.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans are 3.1 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be killed by police than whites.
A short time after Chiefstick was shot, the fireworks show went on as planned.
A vigil took place and a memorial established July 6 at the shooting site. Two weeks later, a vandal or vandals removed the memorial. Police found objects from the memorial in trash bins and returned them to the site.
Stonechild Chiefstick was a haunted man.
Several years ago, his brother suffered brain damage from smoke inhalation when their house caught fire. Chiefstick had put some clothes in the clothes dryer; the dryer started an electrical fire.
“He always struggled with that,” Takenalive said. He also struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. According to an investigator’s report after the July 3 shooting, Chiefstick’s girlfriend told police they were both scheduled to go to inpatient drug treatment but were waiting for beds to become available.
Through the years. Chiefstick worked in construction, landscaping and doing odd jobs. “He tried to do the best he could for others,” Takenalive said. “He was like everybody’s uncle.”
Still she believes assumptions led to him being shot and killed – that people saw Chiefstick as a threat rather than as someone having a mental health episode, and that view shaped how police responded.
Pam Keeley, a registered nurse, told the Poulsbo City Council the conclusion may have been different if residents had known how to de-escalate the situation. “Why didn’t someone reach out to Stonechild before even calling the police — ‘How are you?’ ‘Can I help you with something?,’ she said. “I think de-escalation needs to apply to everybody, including the police.”
Officer Keller, who fired the fatal shots, successfully completed anti-bias and de-escalation training, according to his record. He’s non-Indian, but started his career with Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal Police; the tribe reported he had a good record there with no complaints from the community.
Anatomy of a shooting
At about 9:22 p.m. July 3, Officer Keller, Detective Lee Wheeler, Community Services Officer Nicolas San Gil and Reserve Officer David Lom approached Chiefstick in the park in response to an allegation that he had threatened someone with a screwdriver.
People were sitting or moving about waiting for the fireworks show to begin; Chiefstick is seen on video from Keller’s body camera walking among the crowd.
Keller ordered Chiefstick to get his hand out of his pocket as he reached for Chiefstick’s arm. Chiefstick responded, “Hey, chill out, chill out,” and a struggle ensued.
Keller’s body camera fell to the ground but continued to record what happened. Chiefstick is seen running away; what happened next is out of the camera’s view. Keller shouts “Screwdriver!,” indicating Chiefstick has a weapon. A male voice is heard saying, “Uh, uh, uh uh.” Keller orders Chiefstick to get on the ground.
Several witnesses said Chiefstick turned and made a move toward the officers. Keller fired two shots, striking Chiefstick once in the chest and once in the face.
Fourteen seconds passed from the time Keller made contact with Chiefstick and shots were fired.
Witness estimates of the distance between Keller and Chiefstick range from 4 to 7 feet. “Gun powder evidence suggests Mr. Chiefstick was within 2 feet of Officer Keller’s firearm at the time of the shooting,” Enright wrote.
Keller later told investigators that he fired his weapon because Chiefstick “attempted to stab me."
"I fired my weapon in defense of my life and the lives of citizens around me," he said. "[H]ad I not shot Mr. Chiefstick, he would have severely injured or killed myself and/or other citizens.”
History of strained relations
The shooting follows a history of injustices toward Indigenous people in the area. And history is not forgotten: Grandparents share with grandchildren oral histories handed down from their own grandparents.
Three culture bearers back — the grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents — and you’re in 1792, when Royal Navy Capt. George Vancouver’s ships sailed into these waters; and the early 1800s, when Great Britain and the U.S. claimed land here without consulting the region’s First Peoples, who had their own territories and leadership.
Two culture bearers back and it’s 1855, when Indigenous leaders signed treaties making a large swath of Western Washington available to newcomers but reserved certain rights within their historical territories. The City of Seattle was named after one of those signatories, the Duwamish and Suquamish leader Si’ahl, who was heralded as a friend of whites at the same time the Seattle City Council banned Native Americans from living within the city limits and settlers began burning down Duwamish longhouses.
The grandparents’ grandparents saw reserved land lost by takings and by court decisions that favored white people. Old Man House on the Suquamish reservation, the home of chiefs Si’ahl and Kitsap, was burned down in 1870 by the U.S. government; the land was taken for a military fortification that was never built and then sold to a private developer. In another case, a court awarded ownership of a 5.3-square-mile chunk of the Suquamish reservation waterfront to a white man after his Suquamish wife died without children, even though her other relatives had valid claims to the land.
Meanwhile, Scandinavian immigrants flooded into Poulsbo — attracted by land, resources and a climate similar to that in their native countries — and supplanted the Indigenous presence with their own. Suquamish people had lived here for thousands of years. But in an extensive history book published in time for Poulsbo’s centennial, the Indigenous history of this place warranted one page.
Norwegian was the first language spoken in many Poulsbo homes for 60 years, and five Poulsbo mayors were Norwegian-born. But during World War II, the population began to diversify with new residents attracted by defense-related jobs at nearby Navy bases. Norwegian was no longer the dominant culture.
In 2018, Poulsbo’s population, according to the U.S. Census, was 9.9 percent Asian ancestry, 8.2 percent Mexican ancestry, 2.2 percent African ancestry, and 2.1 percent Native American – 4.05 percent if including the percentage of Mexican Americans that identify as Indigenous people. But none of that is reflected in the city that calls itself Little Norway. Downtown Poulsbo street names, storefronts, public art and signage reflect the Scandinavian heritage of the city’s first wave of European immigrants.
Some say the emphasis on one culture has led to an ethnocentrism that has influenced how people view and treat others. Suquamish leaders and others tell of encountering racist graffiti and racial slurs while growing up, of racial profiling, of being treated unjustly.
Two steps forward, two steps back
Chief Seattle’s grave at the Suquamish Cemetery was desecrated in 2001. A multicultural organization, the Suquamish Olalla Neighbors, formed in response to improve relations between the Native and non-Native community. The organization successfully lobbied the state to return the Old Man House site in 2005 to the Suquamish Tribe.
Also in 2005, the Poulsbo City Council and the Suquamish Tribe signed a memorandum of understanding in which they pledged to work together to resolve issues of mutual concern and established an intergovernmental committee of elected officials from the city and the tribe.
Those were two steps forward.
Then, in 2012 and 2016, a school board member and a judge made decisions some criticized as anti-Indian.
First, North Kitsap School Board member Scott Henden said he couldn’t vote for an educational agreement with the Suquamish Tribe because it referred to the tribe as a sovereign nation. “I don’t see them as a sovereign nation. Norway is a sovereign nation,” he said. “And I don’t see why we need to agree to that so that we can have a contract with them.”
Then, Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Kevin Hull ruled that the nearby city of Bremerton, not the Suquamish Tribe, had jurisdiction over an isolated allotment of Indian land, in clear contradiction of the U.S. Code.
Those were two steps back.
A separate racial issue emerged in 2014, when an elementary school principal in Poulsbo was placed on administrative leave after she used the N-word in explaining to a black student how the word was different than the word “Negro.” She was warned by the superintendent not to use the word again, but the principal used the N-word — not the term “N-word” but the actual word — at least two more times when trying to explain her rationale to the child’s parents.
Comments posted to a local newspaper’s website in response to the story were overwhelmingly in favor of the principal. Commenters dismissed concern over the principal’s use of the N-word as political correctness.
Dana Steege-Jackson, a local farmer and ally of the Native American community, said the city seems to make racial progress only to fall back because the existence of racism is not acknowledged and addressed. Problems arise, they go away for a while, and people feel better.
“You can say you believe in equality, but what happens when people demand their rights?” she said. "When forced to confront racism, people in the majority feel defensive. They can be part of the solution, but first there’s got to be a mindset change.”
ONLINE: Deescalate Washington video, “Justice for Stonechild Chiefstick,” https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=557798591760067
Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican Yaqui, is an Indian Country Today contributor reporting from Anacortes, Washington.
The headline of the story was corrected to fix a spelling error.