Suquamish Tribe questions the Poulsbo police shooting of a Native man
The streets of downtown Poulsbo, Washington, a Norwegian-themed city within the historical territory of the Suquamish Tribe, were filled with an estimated 250 Native and non-Native marchers Aug. 10 calling for justice for Stoney Chiefstick, a Chippewa man who was fatally shot by a police officer here in July.
Participants marched, and many drummed and sang, through downtown to the steps of Poulsbo City Hall, where speakers said racism is real in the community and calling for all people to demand change.
“We’re coming together as a community,” said James Old Coyote, Stolo/Cree, leader of the Suquamish-based Sacred Water Canoe Family. “We’re coming together as all kinds of different people. We need to do that as a community.
“As a brown man, I feel tension. I feel tension when I come to Poulsbo and go to the store. I feel tension and that’s not right. I was concerned about bringing my little ones here today and that’s not right. We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to do something right now -- today. Something has to happen today.”
What many participants want today is to trust that the law enforcement investigation into the shooting will be honest and that the officer will be held accountable. They also want the city to acknowledge and address the racial divide in the community.
One speaker talked about racism she and her family have experienced in Poulsbo, and she called on all residents -- particularly non-Native residents -- to take a stand. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if Stoney was white, he would not be dead right now,” she said. “There is no doubt, absolutely no doubt in my mind, and I’m angry about that. And you -- white people-- need to be angry about that and do something.”
Stoney Chiefstick Sr., 39, is Chippewa. His children are Suquamish. He was fatally shot in a waterfront park by a Poulsbo police officer as hundreds of people gathered for the city’s 3rd of July fireworks show. The shooting is under investigation by a regional law enforcement task force.
Members of the Poulsbo and Suquamish communities question whether the shooting was justified, particularly in a crowded park. The officer was armed with a Taser as well as a sidearm, according to Poulsbo Police Chief Dan Schoonmaker.
Investigators say police officers confronted Chiefstick in response to reports he had a screwdriver and was “acting in a strange manner, which alarmed the people around him.” A struggle ensued, investigators reported, and “one officer fired his handgun, striking the subject.”
According to County Coroner Jeff Wallis, Chiefstick was shot once in the face and once in the chest.
The assistant commander of the investigation team told Indian Country Today in an earlier interview that the investigation report will be completed and submitted to the county prosecutor after toxicology results are received from the state crime lab. Based on the timeframe given, that could be late August/early September.
“I think this whole thing is tragic,” Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson told Indian Country Today on Aug. 7. “It saddens me for a multitude of reasons.” One, she said, a family lost a loved one. Two, “the Suquamish Tribe is our closest and best neighbor. We are communities connected” with a shared history, and the city council and tribal council formally established a government-to-government relationship in 2005.
Some measures Erickson said she’d like to implement: have a liaison regularly represent the city at Suquamish Tribal Council meetings, and invite the Suquamish Tribe to do the same; and provide training for city employees so they can learn about Suquamish culture and history.
But Suquamish leaders say there’s an anti-Indian undercurrent in Poulsbo and the area that needs to be addressed. In an opinion piece published Aug. 6 in the Kitsap Sun newspaper and provided to Indian Country Today, the Suquamish Tribal Council noted that the city went ahead with the 3rd of July celebration “in spite of this tragic shooting mere minutes earlier” and that a memorial to Chiefstick in the park where he died was later desecrated.
The tribal council wrote of Indigenous people being subjected to hostility and discrimination “when shopping, attending school, or being stopped by police in Poulsbo and other parts of north Kitsap County”; welcome signs on the reservation being riddled with bullet holes; and the vandalism of Chief Seattle’s grave in 2000.
“Encountering racist graffiti and racial slurs are part of growing up as tribal members,” the tribal council wrote. It said new state standards for police training in de-escalation, mental health, and cultural competency “can help reduce police shootings, especially those involving racial profiling and individuals with mental illness.
“The Suquamish Tribe provides funding to Poulsbo Police and other state and local law enforcement [agencies] for equipment and training designed to improve the safety of their officers and communities," the council said, "We are expecting renewed assurances this funding is being used to reduce harm to human life, as intended.”
Erickson said she doesn’t think a racist undercurrent exists in her city, but said of the tribal council’s column that “their points were well made.”
Erickson said she hopes her city council and the Suquamish Tribal Council can meet “within the next couple of weeks” to have a “frank, open, honest conversation” that can facilitate healing.
Tribal council members wrote in the column that they anticipate having government-to-government discussions with the mayor and city council regarding the events surrounding the fatal shooting and measures the city is taking to adhere to new state law related to the use of deadly force and police training in de-escalation, mental health, and cultural competency.
Under that state law, a police officer can be prosecuted for use of deadly force that is found to be unjustified.
Questions, and more questions
Chiefstick’s death has brought to the fore the troubled, and too-often deadly, relationship between Native Americans and police.
“Nationwide, Native Americans are the most likely of any demographic group to be shot and killed by police,” the tribal council wrote in the opinion-page column, citing data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Native people are three times more likely to die at the hands of police than are white people. Across Indian Country, families grieve loved ones taken from them too soon.”
The Suquamish officials added, “Even for those who haven’t personally lost a loved one, Native people and other people of color are painfully aware of the long history of violence directed against them across the generations, creating a pervasive historic trauma that infuses all aspects of community life.” (Coincidentally, Chiefstick helped carry the totem pole that was placed Feb. 26, 2012 in Seattle in honor of John T. Williams, the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations carver fatally shot by a Seattle police officer in 2010.)
Suquamish officials called on residents to ask themselves and their neighbors, churches, school boards, police and city officials “to make the hard choice to become agents of positive change, to make the honorable decision to always call out racism in all its ugly forms, and to rebuke anything or anyone that would shorten or further traumatize the lives of Native Americans and other people of color.”
Among the questions Suquamish officials hope the investigation into Chiefstick’s death answers:
- What led police to use deadly force “rather than any of the many non-lethal methods available to a trained and well-equipped police force?”
- What led to the decision to discharge a weapon in a crowd that included families and young children?
- Will law enforcement authorities make an objective determination about whether to prosecute the shooting?
- What role, if any, did racial profiling play in the incident?
‘In good standing’
The officer responsible for Chiefstick’s death — identified by authorities as Craig Keller, a five-year member of the Poulsbo Police Department – is on paid administrative leave pending the results of the investigation.
Keller joined Poulsbo police after a rookie year with the Port Gamble S’Klallam Police Department on the nearby Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation. During his time there, there were no citizen complaints registered against him and “he left the department in good standing,” Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe spokeswoman Ginger Vaughn said Aug. 7.
Schoonmaker, the Poulsbo police chief, said all officers in his department are required to undergo anti-bias and de-escalation training, and that they have done so in his less than three years as police chief.
March was ‘good medicine’
“Marching for justice for Stonechild Chiefstick Sr. brought much-needed good medicine to his children and his loved one’s hurting hearts,” said march organizer Trishandra Pickup, Suquamish, with whom Chiefstick had four children. “We the people need to stand up against the violence happening around us today.”
Pickup said her children “have had a sad dose of the real world too young,” and that she had let them know “how in this world we have good, even great, human beings and then we have ugly, hateful people -- ones you can trust, and others you should run fast and far away from, for they do not carry good spirits within their being.”
Pickup said her children know of the dangers police officers face every day and they “have respect for our police who serve and protect.”
She added that her children know police officers are human beings who make mistakes. “We also know a man who left no one injured, not a scratch not bruise, should not be shot in the head.”
Richard Walker reporting from Anacortes, Washington.