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For Native Americans in Montana, Derek Chauvin trial guilty verdict ‘hits close to home’



Many Native Americans in Montana expressed relief after a jury on Tuesday found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all counts for the murder of George Floyd.

Chauvin was convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He will be sentenced in eight weeks. 

Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after pleading for his life as Chauvin pressed his knee into his neck in May of last year. The incident sparked outrage, and protesters flooded cities worldwide, including Great Falls, Helena, Bozeman, Missoula and Billings. They called for justice and an end to systemic racism.

Black Lives Matter protesters rally along Central Avenue West in front of the Missouri River Federal Courthouse on Friday, June 12, 2020.

Guilty verdict hits home

Because Native Americans are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and are victims of police brutality, for many in Montana, Tuesday’s verdict hit home. 

Though Indigenous people account for 6.6% of Montana’s population of about one million, they make up 17% of the adult incarcerated population in the state, according to the ACLU of Montana.

Native Americans also experience higher rates of police violence. A 2014 Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice report found that while about 0.8% of the population identified as American Indian or Alaska Native alone, between 1999-2011, they comprised 1.9% of police killings.

‘We have no justiceAre Native Americans the forgotten victims of police brutality?

Black Lives Matter protesters rally along Central Avenue West in front of the Missouri River Federal Courthouse on Friday, June 12, 2020.

Tribal members react to Chauvin trial verdict

Erica Shelby, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said her stomach was in “knots” all morning awaiting the verdict. She thought of Emmett Till, who was lynched in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman, and Rodney King, an activist who was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991.

“I was really anxious,” Shelby said. “But when the verdict was out, I just screamed. Thank goodness. This happens time and time again, we have police violence against minorities and people are found not guilty all the time.”

Black Lives Matter protesters rally along Central Avenue West in front of the Missouri River Federal Courthouse on Friday, June 12, 2020.

“But this time was different. It shows that we all have to be active if we want justice. This decision sends a message that our country is going to do better, that we’re not going to allow this to happen and that we will hold people accountable. Justice here is justice for all of us,” she said. 

Mary Foote, a member of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes, watched the verdict with her husband. She said she hopes the decision will change how law enforcement operates. 

“My father was a police officer so I understand that side of the story, but law enforcement needs to treat people fairly, no matter what color they are,” she said. 

Black Lives Matter protesters march from the Civic Center to the Missouri River Federal Courthouse on Friday, June 12, 2020.

Foote lives in Billings and said her family experiences racial profiling on a regular basis. 

“It’s almost once a week. My kids, my husband or myself, we all get stopped for nothing. We’ve spent a lot of money on fines for crazy things. I don’t know if police officers will learn from this, but I hope it changes how they arrest people,” she said. 

Melody Bernard, a Chippewa Cree tribal member who organized a Black Lives Matter protest in Havre last summer, said the guilty verdict is proof that activism works. 

“Seeing this and seeing everyone who participated in the protest last summer, it’s like, ‘Hey, look our voices do matter!’ We all watched a man die. Someone’s father, someone’s brother. It could be any of our relatives. So if we don’t stand up, no one will,” she said, adding that Floyd’s death reminded her of A.J. Longsoldier, who died in police custody in Hill County in 2009. 

Black Lives Matter protesters march from the Civic Center to the Missouri River Federal Courthouse on Friday, June 12, 2020.

Bernard said she hopes the verdict will inspire more people to advocate for justice. 

“So many people have seen this or experienced this and are scared to speak up, but I think after this verdict, they will be more active, more willing to be involved,” she said. 

Cheryl Horn knows firsthand why justice is critical. Her nephew, Preston Bell, was killed by Billings police of in 2017 and her niece Selena Not Afraid went missing and was found dead in 2020. 

Horn said the guilty verdict brought her relief.

Faith Ariegwe (left) and her sister Kierra Haggerty cross the crosswalk with their fists raised as they make their way to the Federal Courthouse during the National Day of Action for Black Lives Matter protest in Great Falls on Friday, June 5, 2020.

“At least it’s some justice. Justice was served, it’s the bottom line. The nation can feel calm. It just feels so good,” she said. 

But Rep. Donavon Hawk, a Democratic representative from Butte and member of the Crow Nation, said for him, the verdict didn’t warrant a celebration. 

“This shouldn’t be seen as a victory but as an eye-opener. We shouldn’t be revisiting this kind of national incident every decade,” he said, adding that the incident reminded him of Rodney King. 

“A lot of folks will take this as a win and go back to their daily lives, but this problem isn’t going away, and we need to find the root cause of it,” he said.

Hawk said many people, including some in the Legislature, think racism doesn’t exist in Montana. 

Hundreds of community members in Great Falls attended the local National Day of Action for Black Lives Matter protest. The event began on the steps of the Civic Center, protesters eventually marched on sidewalks, obeying traffic laws, to line the Central Avenue bridge in front of the Federal Courthouse on the west bank of the Missouri rive on Friday, June 5, 2020.

“The way people in Montana talk about racism is as if it’s a black and white issue, literally. They don’t think about the Native family that lives around the corner or the tribal community down the road. They immediately think of African-Americans. Justice is being served, and things like this are celebrated as a small win, but it doesn’t reflect what’s going on in our state. We live in a bubble where people think this doesn’t happen. But it happens all the time; it’s why this verdict hits close to home,” he said. 

Nora Mabie can be reached at Sign up for her newsletter on tribal news. 

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