GRAND FORKS — On Aug. 23, 2020, police in Kenosha, Wis., shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times following an altercation. The shooting wasn't fatal, but days later Blake's family announced he was paralyzed from the waist down.
The shooting topped the national news and sparked another wave of Black Lives Matter protests that essentially were a continuation of the civil rights and anti-police violence demonstrations seen around the U.S. all last summer.
But Blake wasn't the only man shot by law enforcement on Aug. 23. That same night, Bureau of Indian Affairs officers entered a Belcourt, N.D., home and shot 35-year-old Brandon Laducer 12 times, killing him. According to Laducer's mother, Renee Martin of Fargo, just before officers entered the home, Laducer was in a recliner going to sleep.
The aftermath of the two shootings — one that made national news, and one that slipped quietly in and out of the local news cycle — underscores a lack of resources to protest and educate in the Native Lives Matter community, Martin said, as well as a tendency in some reservation communities to turn frigid after fatal encounters with law enforcement. There's a consensus that getting justice as a Native person can be an uphill battle, and being the loved one of a victim of police violence can feel particularly isolating, Martin said.
"It's like you're doing this on your own," she said. "They want to go out and protest, and they want to go out and get people involved and support other parents ... and there's no resources for that. There's no opportunity to help educate about what's really happening. Where's the restorative part? I truly believe that those officers that took my son's life should be sitting across from me at a table, and telling me why they did what they did. I can't even get a returned phone call."
- 'I watched my boyfriend die:' Girlfriend of man killed by police on Spirit Lake Reservation describes deadly traffic stop
- Man fatally shot by BIA officer on Spirit Lake Reservation
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks data associated with violent deaths, Indigenous people are the demographic most likely to be killed during an encounter with police, but it's unclear how many Native people have been killed by police in recent years. The Bismarck-based Lakota People's Law Project is attempting to learn those numbers from the FBI, but by Martin's estimate, the number is close to 80 nationwide since 2015.
Three have been in or near North Dakota in the past eight months, including the Aug. 23 death of Laducer, and two that occurred in the past three weeks.
On March 17, 44-year-old David Suarez of Fargo was shot and killed by a BIA agent on the Spirit Lake Reservation. Suarez's girlfriend, who was in the car with him and witnessed his death, said Suarez realized he was surrounded and put his hands up before police shot him; she told Fargo television station WDAY she believes Suarez had a pocketknife in his possession, but is unsure if he had drawn it. FBI spokesperson Kevin Smith said something had to have happened for the officer to pull the trigger, and the agency continues to investigate the incident.
Days earlier, on Sunday, March 14, a BIA officer shot and killed Ryan White Mountain on the South Dakota side of the Standing Rock Reservation, which straddles North Dakota-South Dakota border. Chase Iron Eyes, the lead attorney for the Lakota People's Law Project who was both acquainted with White Mountain and attended high school with the officers who were present at his death, said White Mountain was killed in his home in front of family members.
The BIA directed requests for comment to the FBI, which did not return requests for an interview.
Some reservations are policed by their own forces, but on other reservations, such as Standing Rock, they contract with the BIA, meaning officers can be "shipped in from wherever" and often have little or no connection to the community, Iron Eyes said. Both scenarios can complicate the issue, which he describes as systemic.
Native communities' history with the BIA is long and traumatic, from Natives being confined to reservations on military forts to Courts of Indian Offenses prosecuting people "for being who you are, essentially, as a Native person," he said. That past has resulted in many Indigenous communities' distrust of law enforcement, and in many cases, it continues to be extremely difficult to get justice as a Native person, Iron Eyes said.
"Justice in Indian Country is tenable at best," Iron Eyes said. "When you are wronged in Indian Country as a Native person, you've got to realize that it could be the people who wronged you who are in control of the tribal government, who are in control of the police force, who are in control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. So it is very hard to obtain justice if you're not connected to those levers of oversight."
"Again, I don't know this other brother from Spirit Lake, and I don't know the circumstances under which he was shot and killed," he said. "But as a general rule, I feel that law enforcement kills more people than they are justified in killing."
'They don't care'
The deaths of Suarez and White Mountain remain under investigation, but Martin said that, in her experience, investigations rarely bring closure.
When the investigation into Laducer's death concluded, the North Dakota U.S. Attorney's Office declined to seek charges against the officer who killed him. The U.S. Department of Justice has not yet released the findings of the investigation.
And the violence against Native people extends beyond just lethal force by law enforcement, she said. According to the Sovereign Bodies Institute, 134 Indigenous women have been found dead in the Red River over the course of decades.
Martin intends to ask for a second investigation into Laducer’s death, and claims she has evidence her son was murdered unjustly and also that BIA officers acted inappropriately following his death. She has sought help from civil rights attorneys, though unsuccessfully. She is now considering starting a nonprofit to continue to raise awareness surrounding the issues, and hopes to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Department of the Interior and North Dakota's federal delegates.
"They need to take care of North Dakota. And they need to take care of what's happening here," she said.