Bearcane Family settles 11-year discrimination lawsuit against the FBI
Patricia S. Bangert, Attorney at Law, LLC
on behalf of the Bearcrane Family
The family of Steven Bearcrane, a young Crow-Gros Ventre tribal member killed by a white co-worker in 2005, has settled their 11-year discrimination lawsuit against the FBI. With the lawsuit behind them, the family plans to take broader actions that will benefit the Native American community as a whole.
On February 2, 2005, Steven Bearcrane, a young Crow-Gros Ventre Indian, was shot in the head and killed by a white co-worker on the Crow Reservation. No one has been arrested even though the killer was well known. The FBI did the investigation of the murder. From the start, the investigator assumed that the Indian was at fault for his own death and refused or ignored evidence counter to that. The result was no prosecution and another dead Indian with no justice. It’s a story familiar to every Native American. For 15 years, the family of Steven Bearcrane has been seeking justice for Steven.
Earl Bearcrane, Steven’s Grandfather said that: “I am 84 years old and have watched my great granddaughter –Steven’s daughter Precious – grow up and my wife die during this journey and I’ll spend the rest of my years seeking justice for Steven.”
The journey for justice started with a lawsuit against the FBI and the individual agents involved in 2007. For the last eleven years, with few resources, the family of Steven Bearcrane has been in court with the FBI. Over those many years of fighting in court, thousands of persons across the United States have been made aware of Steven’s tragic death, as well as discrimination in the provision of law enforcement services on reservations. In addition, the case resulted in a ruling that FBI agents do not have immunity from suit when they fail to provide equal law enforcement services to Native Americans as in the Bearcrane case.
Unfortunately, over time, Judges in the case have chipped away and narrowed the scope of the case to a single issue that applies just to the Bearcrane family. Settlement of the case allows the family to take a better and more effective path to getting justice for Steven and many other Native Americans on reservations. As explained by the family’s principal attorney, Patricia Bangert: "While litigation has served one purpose, it has also prevented the Bearcrane family from actively lobbying government officials to make changes on the reservations. When there is on-going litigation, government officials – elected or appointed – won’t get involved in an issue because they don’t want to ‘take sides.’ Without litigation, the Bearcrane family is free to lobby those officials and bring to their attention problems on the reservation.”
Under the settlement agreement, the Bearcrane family and their supporters will meet with high-ranking officials from the Department of Justice and the FBI to personally relay their concerns regarding unequal law enforcement services provided by the FBI on Native American lands, and to provide information the family believes will improve the quality of life and safety of Native Americans living on those lands. This meeting will be part of a larger effort by the Bearcrane family to organize a mechanism for Indigenous people to tell their stories of justice denied, which continues to occur. Specifically, with the litigation behind them, the Bearcrane family will establish an organization that will provide opportunities for individual reservation members to tell their own stories about law enforcement issues, and, when appropriate, get those cases to the press or attorneys.
The Bearcrane family believes that this is an especially good time to leave one path and take another in light of the government’s establishment of its Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. Cletus Cole, Steven’s father said “We have gone down a long path in seeking justice for Steven in Court. We’ve accomplished a lot in bringing his death and the discrimination by the FBI to public attention. Now we travel a different path – one that helps the wider Indian community.”
But Steven’s mother is adamant that Steven will not be forgotten on this different path. The family will continue to push officials to re-open and re-investigate Steven’s murder for his sake and the sake of all Native Americans. According to Earline Bearcrane – Steven’s mother – “I will make sure Steven is not forgotten. But justice for Steven is not about one person. It is about the dignity and worth of every Native American. Thus the fight is larger than one person, one family, or one law suit, and, as such, it will continue for a very long time.” Thus, the family believes that it is time to settle the lawsuit and pursue other broader actions that impact the community as a whole.
The family wants to thank all of the many people and organizations who have supported them over the last 11 years and hopes that they stand with the family in moving forward on this new path.