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The Montana Innocence Project has explored some of the reasons behind the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous peoples this month. We discussed the over-policing and over-criminalization of Indigenous peoples, the barriers of technical violations and jurisdictional complexities, and the criminalization of Indigenous women’s survival strategies. We will continue to address how these problems persist in Montana and lead to the unjust convictions of Indigenous peoples. To end this month’s series, we want to leave you with final thoughts about the impact of mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples on families and communities and why we should seek to remedy these complex issues. 

Native rights activist, Laurie Little Dog, on the impact of the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous peoples on families and communities:

“The impact is generational,” Little Dog said. “It removes the middle layer of a family. You’ve got the elders that are disconnected from their offspring, and then you have the children who are disconnected and ostracized. A lot of it has to do with transportation. A lot of it has to do with the Department of Corrections limiting visitation. It has to do with making phone calls that are so expensive. Gas prices trying to get to visitation on a consistent basis. It has everything to do with severing a community. You have to choose between everything. Do I get the kids school clothes, or do we go see dad or mom? Do we pay for this field trip, or do we go see dad or mom? It’s something that tears the core of the community apart, and sometimes that’s too painful to really talk about or to acknowledge.”

ACLU of Montana’s Indigenous Justice Program Manager, Sharen Kickingwoman, on the impact of the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous peoples on families and communities:

“These systems are not our own,” Kickingwoman said. “Even tribal courts. These things were imposed on our people, and I think we think about it as so long ago. But there are generations of folks who can remember when it was different. Or it was their grandparents who lived in a different way. These systems of justice are not what our people traditionally did. So navigating something like the criminal legal system is very confusing, and that can be really hard. It can be really hard to figure out how to advocate for someone. And I come back a lot to MMIW. A lot of times it’s like, how do people navigate all these things? How do they navigate the media or figure out who is supposed to investigate this case? We have to become our own advocates, in a system that is not our own and was not designed with us in mind. In fact, it was designed quite literally for the eradication of Native people. To have so many people ensnared in that, the impact on families is just so huge, and that bleeds directly into communities.”

ACLU of Montana Policy Director, Keegan Medrano, on why we should all care about the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous peoples:

“The more time that you spend peeling back the harm, the more you’ll be able to see how Indigenous people live and our relational way of understanding,” Medrano said. “The moment that you see that, I hope and I believe, is a moment for people to change their worldview. I know that sounds rather large, but our being is not just an identity marker. It is a way of being. And when you give us the space and opportunity to be that way, you can actually see that there is another way. We don’t have to live in a world where populations live outside. Sleep on our streets in the cold, in the rain, in the wind, in everything. We don’t have to live in a world where every summer, smoke streams down our hills and clogs our throats. We don’t have to live in that world. And so when you watch Indigenous folks exist and persist, you start to see that there is another way forward. And that’s why they lock us up. That’s why they have bad outcomes for us. Because the more that folks could see that, the more that folks could realize, ‘Hey, we don’t have to participate in this. We don’t have to play this game.’ But it’s scary for people in power who concentrate wealth and concentrate political power to offer that opportunity.”