Filming the stories of Native American women over the past two years, I’ve been exposed to the high-rates of poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse that occur disproportionately on reservations. Listening to the women we have worked with, I’ve learned about their perception of their place in modern America. They wrestle with finding their way in the 21st century, fighting the legacy of exploitation, genocide, and abuse, while simultaneously trying to strengthen their connections with their spirituality and communities.
I’ve also spoken to a lot of non-Natives about their perceptions of American Indians, who unconsciously harbor harmful racist attitudes toward Native Americans.
My first encounter with the modern racism that affects Native Americans came a few months ago, when we were filming in an oil town in North Dakota. We were surrounded by international mining companies who had descended on the small town and were pumping oil out of the earth at incredible rates, with zero regard for their workers’ safety or for the town’s water table, which is no longer potable as a result.
When I asked two separate locals (who are educated and open-minded in most respects) about how they perceived Native Americans, I was told by both that Natives are “greedy”.
I could not fathom how the poorest, most at-risk segment of their town’s population was perceived as greedy, while all around them billionaires were getting richer by ruining their water, land and air.
It’s impossible to deny. Racist attitudes pervade even the most open and educated of minds. Native Americans face this modern racism, and in many ways it’s keeping them mentally ill, impoverished and addicted.
“Overlooked and Segregated”
Misty Upham, a 32-year-old actress known for her roles in Frozen River, Big Love, and August: Osage County, was outspoken about the depiction of Native Americans in film, and was striving to modernize the image of the American Indian. Many people, she said, are “trained to think” that Native Americans are either “symbols of nobility and spirit”, or poor, complaining, alcoholics, easily “overlooked and segregated”. Misty would at times go for years with out acting work, because of her insistence on only accepting roles that were honest portrayals of the “human aspect” of Native Americans.
Sadly, on October 5th, Misty’s promising career was cut short. After leaving her sister’s apartment on the Muckleshoot Reservation near Auburn, WA, Misty disappeared without a trace. Her body was not recovered until October 16th. In the meantime, Auburn police refused to conduct a search, despite her history of mental illness and her family’s concern that she could be in danger.
Her uncle, exasperated by the police department’s inaction, took it upon himself to form a small search party. After several days, Misty’s purse was located, which soon led the searchers to a cliff behind her apartment building. Misty’s body was found, with massive internal and external injuries, at the bottom of a ravine.
‘Auburn PD refused to help’
Although her death now appears to be an accident, accusations are flying that the Auburn PD bears some responsibility. Her family believes she was hiding from police when she fell. She had expressed fear of being taken into custody and committed for psychological evaluation, something that had happened four times since July. They claim that during previous encounters with Auburn Police, Misty had been verbally abused and harassed, which police deny, but which the family says they witnessed.
Following the discovery of her body, police Cmdr. Mike Hirman released a statement defending police response. In the statement, he highlighted that a “fairly clean” vodka bottle was found near her body.
‘The system failed her’
Law enforcement’s apparent disinterest in the missing person’s case and their subsequent statement suggesting that Misty was drinking at the time of her death have outraged her family and led to accusations of racial discrimination. Misty’s family has accused the police of taking “a cheap shot”, painting Misty as “a drunken Indian” before they’ve even completed an investigation. It seems questionable that the vodka bottle detail was necessary in the press release. Toxicity tests results were days away, and the only conceivable purpose of including it would be to diminish their own responsibility, or dismiss her death as stereotypical and to be expected.
Misty’s father, Charles Upham, charged that if it had been the police commander’s daughter who was missing, the case would have been treated differently.
It’s easy for the police, even unintentionally, to conjure up the image of the “drunken Indian”, and distance themselves from responsibility. It’s so much a part of American culture that we don’t recognize it as a harmful generalization. In this case, however, it may have cost Misty her life.
It should also be pointed out that despite being taken into custody four times this summer. The hospital, for some unknown reason, was unable to provide her the same medications that had kept her healthy before moving to Auburn.
The Auburn PD’s attempt to classify Misty as a drunk, mentally unstable Indian is an easy way to shrug off the city’s role in her death, and hope that her fans will dismiss her death as a tragic accident. This tragedy should also be treated as an opportunity to reflect on the larger issues facing Native Americans.
Misty was struggling, just as other Native American women do. She died in what appears to be a tragic coincidence of circumstances that affect many American Indians, both urban and living on reservations: lack of proper mental health care, tension with law enforcement, and society’s perception that a Native American is not worth our time.
Misty didn’t want to be used to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Her life’s goal was to bring everyday, modern Native American characters to life. She wanted to give people Native characters that were human and relatable. Let’s remember her as she would have wanted to be seen: not as a stereotype, but as a remarkably talented woman, with a complex past who lost her life too young.