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The everyday violence of Indian Country’s ‘bordertowns’

In ‘Red Nation Rising,’ violence in the communities abutting reservations illuminates colonialism’s continued presence.

A photo of Albuquerque, New Mexico, overlayed on a 1970 atlas, shows the reservations surrounding the “bordertown.” | Photo illustration by High Country News. Sources: Kalen Goodluck; Library of Congress

In June 2017, a store owner in Omaha, Nebraska, called the cops on Zachary Bearheels, a young Rosebud Sioux man, who was acting erratically in the street. Bearheels, who had been traveling to visit his mother, ended up on the side of the highway after he was kicked off a Greyhound bus, without medication for his bipolar and schizoaffective disorders. After walking all day, he was met by four police officers. The scene quickly escalated; officers cuffed Bearheels and placed him in a police cruiser, then let him out after calling his mother, who had filed a missing person’s report. Bearheels fled and was chased by police, who beat and tased him repeatedly. When it was all over, Bearheels, hands still cuffed behind his back, lay dead on the ground. According to news sources, the coroner’s report stated he had died of “excited delirium syndrome,” a non-medical, junk-science euphemism police use when suspects die from tasers or chokeholds.

Bearheels’ story is part of the violent legacy of Indian Country’s “bordertowns” — the towns and cities outside Indian reservations, where Indigenous and white residents live side-by-side. His case is one of many documented in Red Nation Rising: From Bordertown Violence to Native Liberation, by Nick Estes, Melanie K. Yazzie, Jennifer Nez Denetdale and David Correia. The book illuminates the long-overlooked, amorphous violence that has plagued Indian Country’s bordertowns, from early settler colonialism days to today. Part manifesto and part historical analysis, Red Nation Rising reveals how settler colonialism still shapes the lives of Indigenous people — and how they are singled out by frontier-born legal, social and political realities and seen as possible targets.

Bordertowns began as mining and military outposts, established on the perimeters of reservations. Many are small towns, but others are growing cities like Albuquerque, Seattle and Rapid City. By Red Nation Rising’s standards, any white-dominated settlement on traditional tribal territory qualifies as a bordertown. Whether established by occupying U.S. military forces, vigilantes or land opportunists, these settlements — built on occupied Indigenous homelands — were violent from the beginning. Today, they are too often the site of police brutality, marked by workplace discrimination, extreme poverty, and a lack of housing and social services for Native people. Tribal jurisdiction is limited or nonexistent when it comes to prosecuting civil and criminal offenses. Red Nation Rising is a handbook for these issues, the first of its kind; it not only synthesizes the histories of tribes and surrounding settlers, it catalogs the “million daily indignities” of bordertown life.

Read more: https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.6/ideas-books-the-everyday-violence-of-indian-countrys-bordertowns




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High Country News

High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.

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