Protesting Native Deaths by Police

Amid protests against police violence nationwide, a march was held in remembrance of a Native man who died in police custody while suffering a mental health crisis.

Elena Carter July 20, 2020

Demonstrators mark the third anniversary of the death of Zachary Bear Heels, a Native man who died in police custody in Omaha, Neb., in 2017. (Photo by Kevin Abourezk)

OMA­HA, NEB. — Kateri Hin­man Petto’s feet began to bleed dur­ing the 4‑mile walk from the down­town Grey­hound bus sta­tion to Bucky’s Con­ve­nience Store. But stop­ping wasn’t an option. Near­ly 200 peo­ple were behind her and, besides, she thought, this was noth­ing com­pared to what Zachary Bear Heels had gone through. Bear Heels, a 29-yearold Rose­bud Lako­ta man, died in police cus­tody out­side Bucky’s on June 5, 2017. He was dehy­drat­ed, con­fused and in a men­tal health crisis.

“We need to keep demanding justice. They need to understand how we feel, how Zach’s death weighs heavy on our hearts.” —Les Chalepah

At the march, Pet­to raised her mega­phone and said his name. The crowd, gath­ered to retrace Bear Heels’ final steps on the third anniver­sary of his death, called back Zachary Bear Heels” and chant­ed Native Lives Matter.”

Bear Heels had been trav­el­ing to Okla­homa City by bus when he was kicked off for errat­ic behav­ior” at the Oma­ha sta­tion, accord­ing to Indi​anz​.com. Rel­a­tives say Bear Heels, who strug­gled with bipo­lar dis­or­der and schiz­o­phre­nia, had not been tak­ing his pre­scribed med­ica­tion. He wan­dered Oma­ha for two days. Author­i­ties found him danc­ing in front of Bucky’s.

Bear Heels, who was not under arrest or being detained, refused to get into a police cruis­er. A strug­gle ensued. Police then shocked Bear Heels a dozen times with a taser (includ­ing three times after he stopped resist­ing) and repeat­ed­ly punched him in the head, ulti­mate­ly smoth­er­ing him on the pave­ment, hand­cuffed, under the weight of sev­er­al offi­cers, one of whom weighed 275 pounds.

I think about him every day,” says Les Chalepah, Bear Heels’ cousin, who grew up with Bear Heels in Okla­homa. He was just a hap­py per­son,” Chalepah says.

The June 5 demon­stra­tion was the sec­ond memo­r­i­al walk held in hon­or of Bear Heels. He was one of 33 Native Amer­i­cans to be killed by police in 2017, accord­ing to the web­site Fatal Encoun­ters.

Native deaths by police rarely make nation­al head­lines, but Native Amer­i­cans are more like­ly to be killed by police than any oth­er racial or eth­nic group (and 3.1 times more like­ly to be killed by police than whites), accord­ing to a 2016 inves­ti­ga­tion by In These Times, The Police Killings No One Is Talk­ing About.” Peo­ple with untreat­ed men­tal ill­ness are 16 times more like­ly to be killed by police than others.

In today’s soci­ety, we’re invis­i­ble,” Pet­to says. Peo­ple don’t real­ize that we’re con­tem­po­rary people.”

Marisa Miakon­da Cum­mings, a mem­ber of the Oma­ha tribe and a moth­er whose chil­dren are Native and African Amer­i­can, empha­sized the need to stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. We know as Indige­nous peo­ple that 99% of us were killed off,” she said at the memo­r­i­al walk. We need allies.”

Oth­ers at the walk held signs bear­ing the name James Scur­lock, a 22-year-old African Amer­i­can man killed by a white bar own­er May 30 dur­ing a George Floyd protest in Omaha.

The coun­ty coro­ner deter­mined Bear Heels died a sud­den death asso­ci­at­ed with excit­ed delir­i­um.” Excit­ed delir­i­um syn­drome is a con­tro­ver­sial label that has not been rec­og­nized by the Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion or the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric Asso­ci­a­tion, but is not uncom­mon­ly cit­ed as a cause of death for vic­tims in police cus­tody. The syn­drome is sup­pos­ed­ly char­ac­ter­ized by agi­ta­tion, delir­i­um, high body tem­per­a­ture, unex­pect­ed strength and sud­den death. Most fatal­i­ties attrib­uted to excit­ed delir­i­um occur after a per­son has been asphyx­i­at­ed while restrained.

The coroner’s report helped offi­cer Scot­ty Payne, charged with felony assault, achieve a ver­dict of not guilty, though he was fired. (The oth­er three offi­cers involved were ini­tial­ly fired but were rein­stat­ed in April.) Some legal experts think the offi­cers charged in George Floyd’s death may try to incor­po­rate the syn­drome in their defense.

Native jour­nal­ist and activist Kevin Abourezk has cov­ered the Bear Heels case exten­sive­ly for Indi​anz​.com. He sus­pects the offi­cers involved were imme­di­ate­ly con­cerned with build­ing an excit­ed delir­i­um defense, sug­gest­ed by the fact that they got in the ambu­lance with Bear Heels’ body.

A wrong­ful death suit filed against the city by Bear Heels’ moth­er is ongo­ing.

Kimara Snipe, a mem­ber of the Oma­ha Pub­lic Schools Board, spoke about the need for diver­si­ty and train­ing and to change poli­cies around police restraint and dead­ly force. Ter­rell McK­in­ney, run­ning for state leg­is­la­ture, remind­ed the crowd the Oma­ha police con­tract is up for renegotiation.

I’m 100% for a more diverse police force,” Pet­to says, but we need to address the sys­temic racism that exists with­in our police force and … [gets excused] in our judi­cial sys­tem. Our ral­ly was a good oppor­tu­ni­ty for the Native com­mu­ni­ty and the Black com­mu­ni­ty to come together.”

Marchers closed the day with a prayer song and a moment of silence.

We need to keep demand­ing jus­tice,” Chalepah says. They need to under­stand how we feel, how Zach’s death weighs heavy on our hearts.” 

Ele­na Carter is a free­lance writer and teach­es at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa.
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