Photo courtesy
Denver Police shoot and kill 35-year-old Paul Castaway, Lakota, in Denver on July 23. The officer who shot Castaway, Officer Traudt, will not be charged in the killing.

Houska: Where Does the Death of Paul Castaway Leave Us?

Tara Houska

On July 23, Denver police fatally shot 35-year-old Paul Castaway, a Lakota man whose mother called 911 asking for help with her mentally ill son. Video surveillance shows Castaway holding a knife to his neck, walking towards the officers, who then open fire.

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey has declined to bring charges against the officer who shot and killed Paul Castaway.

“In this case, Castaway’s decision to turn, confront the officers and deliberately advance toward Officer Traudt, knife in hand, rather than complying with his orders, compelled Officer Traudt to shoot,” reads the report written by Morrissey.

Did we see the same video? 

“Knife in hand” is apparently on par with “knife to his own throat” when electing to shoot someone multiple times. Witnesses say Castaway’s final words were “What’s wrong with you guys?”

Last year, the world watched on a shaky cell phone video as Eric Garner uttered, “I can’t breathe.” Nationwide, communities took to the streets. These were our brothers, our sisters, losing their lives at the hands of those who swore to serve and protect.

But even with video evidence, exonerations, paid leave, and “cleared of all charges” announcements dominate the narrative. And for those cases not caught on film, the outrage was generally localized to family and friends.

Mentally ill Ma-hi-vist Goodblanket’s family feared 18-year-old Goodblanket, Cheyenne-Arapaho, would harm himself, so they called 911. Hours later, the teen was dead and two Oklahoma sheriffs received Medals of Valor. Police claimed he attacked them with a knife; an autopsy revealed Goodblanket had been shot 7 times.

Tanisha Anderson, a 37-year-old African American woman who suffered from schizophrenia, encountered police when a family member reported a disturbance. The circumstances of her death are unclear; she was pronounced dead on arrival to a nearby clinic.

Despite concerted efforts to redirect, obfuscate, and subdue the increasing scrutiny on police contact with minority populations, social justice campaigns continue to grip the media.

So where does this leave us?

Native Americans, far and above the smallest racial group, remain most likely to be killed by police.  Native American men, women, and children are disproportionately incarcerated by the criminal justice system.   

The attitudes and policies directed towards Native Americans with regard to justice have a longstanding history of inequality.

Nearly 40 years ago, the Supreme Court gutted the ability of tribes to protect their own citizens. In Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, the Court described Native nations in terms of voluntary submission: “By submitting to the overriding sovereignty of the United States, Indian tribes therefore voluntarily give up their power to try non-Indian citizens of the United States except in a manner acceptable to Congress.”

These are sobering statistics and legal doctrines that speak of a fundamental disconnect between justice and people of color. “Liberty and justice for all” is a concept that lies out of reach for many, obstructed by a dominating framework of institutional racism and classism.

Change must and will happen.

One small step will occur with the indictments of those law enforcement officers whose actions shout injustice. We have seemingly made some progress in that aspect, with an uptick in prosecution of police officers over the past few months.

But as Paul Castaway’s case and many others remind us, we have a long path before us. Education, understanding, and overall attitudes in the criminal justice system and society as a whole are sorely in need of an overhaul.

Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in Washington, D.C., a founding member of, and an all-around rabble rouser. Follow her: @zhaabowekwe.

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