Native Americans are killed in police encounters at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet rarely do these deaths gain the national spotlight.
"Native American people are basically invisible to most of the people in the country," said Daniel Sheehan, general counsel for the Lakota People's Law Project
For every 1 million Native Americans, an average of 2.9 of them died annually from 1999 to 2015 as a result of a "legal intervention," according to a CNN review of CDC data broken down by race. The vast majority of these deaths were police shootings. But a few were attributed to other causes, including manhandling. That mortality rate is 12% higher than for African-Americans and three times the rate of whites.
Even though the annual rate of death is higher, the number of Native American deaths is relatively small. An estimated 22 Native Americans and Native Alaskans died at the hands of police in 2016, and another 18 have died so far this year, according to Fatal Encounters
, an online database compiled by a former editor at the Reno News & Review in Nevada. It is widely considered one of the most complete sources on deaths resulting from police encounters. CNN excluded deaths caused by car crashes from Fatal Encounters' tally.
This count doesn't include another fatal shooting on Wednesday. A sheriff's deputy shot and killed 14-year-old Jason Pero on the Bad River Reservation in northern Wisconsin. A report
by the Wisconsin Department of Justice said that Pero refused to drop a butcher knife and then lunged twice at the deputy. The state Department of Justice, which is continuing to investigate, said the boy himself called 911, giving his own physical description. The Associated Press reported that Pero's family questions the police account and says the boy was home from school sick.
"(There is) no reason you can justify shooting a 14-year-old boy," Pero's mother, Holly Gauthier, told WDIO-TV.
While most fatal use of police force cases that have been investigated are ruled justifiable
, some of the deaths caught on video have raised cries of excessive or inappropriate use of force.
Death led to awareness
Paul Castaway's death in the summer of 2015 was one of those controversial shootings that moved his family to fight for wider attention to police violence against Native Americans.
A district attorney's report gave the following account of Castaway's death:
On July 12, 2015, Castaway's mother called
911, breathless. "My son, he pulled a knife on me. He's mentally ill and he's drunk," she said.
Castaway had entered her home without her permission and poked her in the neck with a kitchen knife before running out the back door.
When police arrived, they chased Castaway, who demanded that police kill him and then pressed the knife to his own throat.
Video surveillance footage appears to show Castaway was still holding the knife to his throat with both hands as he walked toward one of the officers.
That officer backed away and fired his gun three times, hitting Castaway twice in the torso. Castaway fell to the ground, and police handcuffed him. He died at the hospital, according to The Denver Post.
Castaway's brother, Gabriel Black Elk, said it took him almost a year to watch the video. "There was a lot of mental anguish we had to go through, me and my mom and my sister."
The Denver district attorney found the shooting justified. The family has filed a lawsuit
alleging wrongful use of force and insufficient oversight of officers.
"Police knew they were there to help," Black Elk said. "He wasn't a danger to anybody but himself."
Spurred to action by his brother's death, Black Elk, a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe, created a Facebook message group for Native American families who have lost loved ones to police encounters. Slowly, the group expanded to include families of all races.
"A lot of people told me, 'I didn't know this was a problem for Native Americans, too,' " he said.
Deaths are likely underreported
The data available likely do not capture all Native American deaths in police encounters due to people of mixed race and a relatively large homeless population that is "not on the grid," said Matthew Fletcher, director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center
at Michigan State University.
"The numbers might be wildly underreported," he said.
In 1996, American Indian mortality rates were underreported by an estimated 21% because of inconsistencies in identifying Native Americans on death certificates, according to the CDC. The problem has lingered in recent years and is significant enough to make comparisons with other racial groups tricky.
Other media outlets
that have kept their own tallies of police-related deaths have reported much higher numbers of deaths than what the CDC publishes. They, too, show high rates
of Native American deaths.
The numbers in the Fatal Encounters database, for instance, are more than twice the average number of Native American deaths by legal intervention reported to the CDC.
As Black Elk started to create his Facebook group for grieving families, he said he was just as likely to learn about another Native American death through the grapevine as through local or national media.