Racial violence against Native Americans has drawn attention from the federal government twice in recent years, but many hate crimes still seem to get a pass.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is a federal fact-finding agency with subpoena powers that investigates reports of violent hate crimes and other civil rights violations nationwide. Twice in recent years, the commission has investigated bias-motivated violence against American Indians and Alaska Natives in far-flung locales.
In one notorious January 2001 case that prompted the commission to hold hearings in Alaska, three white teenagers cruised the dark and icy streets of downtown Anchorage armed with a paintball gun loaded with paint pellets that had been frozen to intensify the pain inflicted upon impact. They hunted Alaska Natives and videotaped their own drive-by attacks. Pulling alongside one victim, the teenagers lured the man to the car, saying, "We're tourists from California, and we just want to talk to some Alaskan people." They began asking him fake interview questions. "Talk to the camera," they said. Then, when he turned, they shot him in the face and cheered.
It was clear from the 24-minute videotape recovered by police that the teens were specifically targeting Alaska Natives. As they put it, they were going on "an Eskimo hunt." At one point in the tape, one of them spots a potential victim and says, "Shoot him! Shoot him!" Then, "No, he's Chinese."
When one of the victims, most of whom were inebriated, flagged down a police cruiser and told the officer he had been shot, he was arrested for disorderly conduct and spent 10 days in jail.
"The January 2001 paintball incident may have been the first realization among the non-Native community in Alaska that hate crimes occur, but for the Native community, the event was one more in a series of hate-inspired acts," the civil rights commission concluded in its April 2002 report, "Racism's Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska."
The paintball attacks came amidst a series of brutal attacks on Alaska Natives that were widely suspected of being hate crimes and were included in the commission's investigation. These included five instances where Native women were kidnapped off the streets in downtown Anchorage and raped. Also, four Native women were murdered in Anchorage in a single year, including a 33-year-old woman whose mutilated body was found sprawled in an abandoned shed in September 2000.
Joshua Wade was arrested after police learned the 20-year-old white man had showed off the body to several of his friends before it was discovered by authorities, bragging that he'd killed the woman and had sex with her corpse. After he was arrested, Wade claimed he'd made up the murder story to impress people. He was later convicted of evidence tampering only.
"There are systemic institutional racism problems against Alaska Natives that have occurred for a long time," David Levy, the executive director of the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission who likens the treatment of Alaska Natives in Anchorage to that of African Americans in the Deep South 50 years ago, told the commission. "These problems are going to take a long time to deal with."
Since the January 2001 paintball attacks there have been at least two copycat crimes, and bias-motivated violence against Alaska Natives in Anchorage remains a serious problem.
Tensions in South Dakota
Race hate apparently can be just as dangerous for American Indians in South Dakota towns bordering the Pine Ridge Reservation. Before visiting Anchorage, in 2000, the Commission on Civil Rights went to South Dakota in response to "a recent series of high-profile cases involving the unsolved deaths of several American Indians [that] has brought tensions to the surface," according to the agency's subsequent report, "Native Americans in South Dakota: An Erosion of Confidence in the Justice System."
In Mobridge, S.D., in 1999, four white teenagers beat a mentally retarded, inebriated Sioux Indian, and then shoved him headfirst into a garbage can, where he later died. When the coroner determined alcohol poisoning to be the cause of death, the incident was widely viewed as a prank gone awry. All charges against the four youths were quickly dropped.
As attorney Charles Abourezk told the federal civil rights commission: "Our James Byrds often appear with little notice here in our region, and their killers often get probation rather than the death penalty or do not get charged at all."
Between May 1998 and December 1999, six homeless American Indians were found drowned in the relatively shallow waters of Rapid Creek, and the bodies of two murdered Indian men were found in a culvert just outside the reservation.
In 1999, Native activist Frank Killsright told a reporter he and two friends were crossing a bridge over Rapid Creek when they were confronted by six skinheads. "One of our guys was thrown off the bridge and had his arm broken. The fight lasted five minutes. My glasses were broken and I got a fat lip. Then they ran."
Police refused to take action, Killsright said. "The police are denying white supremacist groups exist here. The town has been a magnet for white supremacists since Custer first came here looking for gold."
Also in 1999, 17 year-old Mark Appel ran over and killed 21 year-old Justin Redday, who had passed out on the road near Sisseton, S.D. Appel admitted he made no effort to avoid the body because "it is illegal to cross the white line, or if it is a solid yellow line, or even if it wasn't, it is illegal to swerve." Unsure of what he had hit, he reportedly backed up to take a look and ran over Redday again. Appel was charged with drunken driving, sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $330.
Redday's mother was outraged. "In my opinion, the message the courts are sending to our community is that it's okay to kill someone as long as it [is] an Indian in this county and state. This state treats Native Americans just like blacks are treated in Mississippi. Why did my son have to die?" she asked a reporter. "Because this white boy seems to have the right to drive around drunk?"
As the commission's report concluded: "Rumors of cover-ups by law enforcement, allegations of halfhearted or nonexistent investigations, and seemingly disparate jail sentences have spurred protests throughout American Indian communities, and further strained already tenuous white-Indian relations."