Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

Race and justice in Oklahoma: Natives struggle to overcome disparity

With high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, communities try to address profound social ills

After family members of several Native Americans with mental illness asked authorities for help, their relatives were killed by law enforcement. The scenario has played out in Custer County and elsewhere in western Oklahoma at least three times in recent years. This is the third in a three-part series exploring the case of Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, an 18-year-old member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, shot by sheriff's deputies after his father called 911. See also parts one and two.

The Black Kettle National Grassland is a vast expanse of red earth topped with wind-whipped prairie grasses in western Oklahoma. A walking path there features an audio tour, in which a computerized voice calmly details how the U.S. Cavalry, led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer, surprised and then slaughtered a peaceful band of sleeping Cheyenne on November night in 1868, killing men, women and children.

He then took prisoners and ordered the gruesome slaughter of 875 of the horses at the encampment near the Washita River and the present-day city of Cheyenne.

Today, 60 miles east in Custer County — named for the officer — the battles fought in the local Native American community are still fierce and deadly. Poverty, mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse are huge problems in Oklahoma, home to 39 federally recognized tribes.

“The alcoholism and drug addiction rates are staggering in the Native American population. It’s staggering,” said Rosemary Stephens, the editor and chief of The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribune, based at tribal headquarters in tiny Concho, west of Oklahoma City.

Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal lands are scattered throughout Custer County and elsewhere in western Oklahoma.

The killing of two Native Americans by law enforcement has fed racial tension in the majority-white law enforcement forces and minority Native population, she said.

“Custer County,” said Stephens, “is our Ferguson.”

In Custer County, law officers killed two mentally ill Native Americans in separate incidents in 2012 and 2013. Unlike with the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, marches, commentary and a cohesive call for change hasn’t followed the deadly force incidents in rural America.

Benjamin Whiteshield was in the midst of a paranoid episode on June 27, 2012, and went to the Clinton Police Department for help. He held a wrench to protect himself; he thought he was being followed. A Clinton officer fired a shot, striking him in the mouth and killing him.  

Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket’s father, Wilbur Goodblanket, called 911 on Dec. 21, 2013, after his son started thrashing around the home and breaking windows. Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, 18, had oppositional defiant disorder, a behavioral disorder marked by angry outbursts, trouble controlling temper and other symptoms. He was in the midst of a mental episode when Custer County sheriff’s deputies shot him. The department maintained that he was armed and throwing knives.

Wilbur, Melissa and Ahk-ta-na-hi Goodblanket at a blessing ceremony at the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes' community center in Clinton, Oklahoma, Feb. 13, 2016.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

To the Goodblankets and other Native Americans living in the area, these deaths raise questions about justice and race in Custer County.

Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members, along with other Native Americans in western Oklahoma, have long questioned the way Native Americans are prosecuted and crimes against them investigated, Stephens said.

She said the worry among tribal members is that a stereotype of the Native American, “the drunk Indian on the street corner,” negatively affects everyday law enforcement interactions with the population.

According to the National Institutes of Health, some Native American communities are disproportionately affected by alcoholism and alcohol-related problems. A new study, though, challenges the long-held belief that Native Americans drink more than other ethnicities, finding it false. Compared with white Americans in a national sample, Native Americans had lower or comparable rates of drinking.

But Stephens cited alcoholism as a major problem, followed by meth use, among Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members. In 2015 the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes began a public awareness campaign to curtail meth use called “Not on our land.”

Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket’s mother, Melissa Goodblanket, who struggled for years to find mental health treatment for him, said she wished that rural officers were required to undergo more mental health training. But Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples said his officers do the best they can with the resources available to uphold the law and keep people safe.

Social ills and calls for help are plentiful in Custer County, he acknowledged. From suicide calls and domestic violence to cattle theft and illegally dumping trash to occasional bouts of golf-ball-size hail, floods, wildfires and tornadoes, the county’s six full-time patrol deputies stay busy.

Peoples and former Custer County District Attorney Dennis Smith do not believe race factored at all in the killings or in the decisions to justify them. “I feel confident the ruling we made was based on the evidence,” said Smith, now an attorney practicing in Clinton. “The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation did the investigation, which I think was proper.”

Oklahoma’s social ills are represented well at the 128-capacity jail, which was nearly full on a recent day.

Lyman Weasel Bear at the Custer County Jail in Arapaho, Oklahoma, to see his son, Feb. 14, 2016. A portrait of Gen. George Custer hangs behind the desk.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

There a photo of Custer hangs on a wall beyond reception. Nearby hangs a painting of Black Kettle and his horse.

In the reception area on Feb. 14 sat Lyman Weasel Bear, a maintenance worker at the local casino. He was there to visit his son. He said the Custer painting didn’t bother him. His people, the Northern Cheyenne, fought Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn

Weasel Bear said drinking and drugs are huge problems among Native Americans in the area, including his children. He said he doesn’t drink and won’t allow others to drink in front of him because of all the problems caused by alcohol.

Asked whether race relations are a problem in Custer County, he didn’t say yes or no. He told a story: Driving home from a powwow, he and his grandson were pulled over by an officer, who asked where they were headed. “Home from a powwow. My grandson is a singer,” he told the the officer. “Oh, yeah? Why don’t you sing for me,” the officer replied. The grandson did as he was told. 

At a nondescript white building in Clinton on a windy Saturday night, tribal members sipped coffee and filled plates with corn, fry bread, beans and pork. Men pounding drums sang Native songs at a blessing ceremony for a 1-year-old girl.

During a song for peace, Melissa Goodblanket wrapped herself in a white shawl featuring a red cardinal and marched with her husband and younger son, Ahk-ta-na-hi. The cardinal stood for Mah-hi-vist; his name means Red Bird.

Ceremonies like this and being around her friends and relatives in the community, help her heal, she said. The revelry carried on well past midnight.

The red bird is a symbol of good things to come.

The Goodblankets hope something good will come of all this. “I don’t want my son to be forgotten,” Melissa Goodblanket said.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter