On a dark, country road in Indian country, the lessons of childhood come back quickly when the police pull you over. As the nation debates police violence, we shouldn't forget the painful experiences of Native Americans.
The officer rapped loudly with a flashlight on the passenger-side window of my car. My 16-year-old, special-needs daughter flung her arms around me like a frightened kitten climbing up my pants leg.
I tried to calm her as I rolled the window down. I could make out no details of the officer because he shined the flashlight in our eyes and the squad car’s flashing lights were blinding.
“What are you doing here? Where are you from? Where are you going? Where are you staying?” the officer demanded in rapid succession.
This was last summer in Northern Wisconsin. My daughter, Rosa, and I had left the reservation late that night after attending a ceremony near the tribal administration offices. After leaving the scant light from a single street light, we entered complete darkness on the narrow country road. That's when, seemingly out of nowhere, a car with blazing headlights began following us closely.
Just after we turned at the crossroads that borders the reservation, we saw a flood of flashing police lights from the vehicle and I pulled over on the shoulder.
Now, I tried to calmly answer the officer’s stream of questions.
“License and proof of insurance,” he asked tersely.
And here is where I almost vomited from fear.
Always trying to be helpful, my daughter, Rosa, who is autistic, opened the glove box for the insurance papers. Reflexively the officer put his hand on his gun as he quickly stepped forward and shined the light toward Rosa and the glove box. She let out a little scream.
Fortunately, that’s when my training in “driving while Indian” kicked in fully. I became extremely calm and deliberate. I used the skills I had learned as a child watching my parents’ tense encounters with law enforcement around the reservation.
The public debate over police violence against unarmed black men has reminded me of the same police treatment of Native men and the palpable lack of public concern. The August 2014 report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice notes that the racial group most likely to be killed by law enforcement is Native Americans. It’s painful to consider and not much fun to write about, but I must. Like so many frail humans, I try to ignore pain until it touches me personally.
“Driving while Indian” isn’t a skill I want to know, nor is it something I want to pass along to my children. I would prefer to loll comfortably in racial anonymity here in my home in Southern Ohio, where race is primarily about black and white. I am occasionally mistaken for Latina out here in the suburbs, which sometimes raises a bit of suspicion among my white neighbors. But mostly I have the tremendous luxury of going about my business without fear of racial injustice from law enforcement and the community at large. This may partially be the result of a heavy personal armor that I’ve grown to protect my psyche; I simply choose to ignore incidents that might have hurt or angered me in the past.
Last summer, however, with my daughter, I got to revisit the frightening vigilance that comes with living on the reservation and traveling to border towns. As a child, I recall many humiliating and scary experiences made all the worse by witnessing the powerlessness of my elders at the hands of white authorities. I remember vividly the shame of seeing my uncle swallow his pride and walk wordlessly out of a store rather than endangering us kids when the white owner told him, “down the street, chief,” when we walked in to buy pop. I remember the fear of frequent traffic stops over things like broken taillights or something or other being too high or too low on the car. Mostly I remember how we all knew to be absolutely quiet and still, no matter what the officer said or did because we knew instinctively that the situation could turn deadly in a second.
This was a lesson I had hoped my children might forego, but I was wrong.
Last summer, when the officer moved his hand toward his gun, the familiar skills returned. It was like knowing how to ride a bicycle.
I explained Rosa was special needs and trying to be helpful. I informed the officer that if it were OK, I would now find my purse and give him my driver’s license. As he examined the documents, I saw that he was non-Indian and probably a county officer. It was too dark to make out details.
We waited while he checked our documents. I reassured Rosa, who was visibly shaken. Loud noises and lights often easily startle autistic people, so I purposefully kept my voice soft and casual. “Don’t’ worry honey, I’m sure it’s a mistake. He is just doing his job.”
When the officer returned to our car, this time on my side, he said, “You ran a stop sign back there.”
“Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize; I’m terribly sorry,” I gushed obsequiously
I’m pretty sure I had stopped at the sign, but I sure wasn’t going to argue with him. He let us go without a ticket and admonished me to drive carefully. I drove to our cabin, shocked and grateful that I had not thrown up or wet my pants.
Rosa described the incident repeatedly. “He thought we did something bad, didn’t he? Why was that? Was he going to shoot me? It didn’t seem fair!”
Autism often causes folks to perseverate or repeat thoughts long after stimulating events have ceased. Rosa perseverated about the traffic stop for many days, trying somehow to make sense of it in her mind.
Eventually she asked me, “Mom, did he stop us because we are Indian?”
“Maybe. There’s a long history of Indians being singled out for unfair treatment by law enforcement,” I said.
She thought about this quietly for a long time.
Simon Moya-Smith of the Oglala Lakota Nation wrote an excellent article for CNN about the high rates of death for Native Americans at the hands of law enforcement. He takes a hard look at the nearly nonexistent public knowledge of the data and the lack of press coverage of such incidents.
He determines that the lack of white or black faces rallying around us or protesting over such injustice is because “we are a forgotten people.”
He concludes that in recognizing and addressing such racial inequities as a nation, “We still have a long way to go.”
Finally Rosa spoke about the traffic stop during our long drive home to Ohio. “Well, I guess that’s just life on the rez, isn’t it mom? I never understood what our relatives were talking about when they talked about racism. Now I think I understand.”
I’m reminded again that we don’t face the ugly thing unless we must. The summer was over and Rosa had lost her innocence; she learned how to drive while Indian. It’s a skill I hope she never has to use, but considering the reality of life for people of color and those with special needs, it’s a skill I’m glad she knows. It might save her life.
Mary Annette Pember is a freelance journalist and photographer who has written numerous tribal-affairs stories for the Daily Yonder. She also is a regular correspondent for Indian Country Today Media Network.