CRESCENT CITY, CA—More than a year has passed since 13-year-old Dante Hat-Anew Wayne Romannose-Jones was shot and killed at point blank range near his home on the Yurok reservation in rural Northern California.
For his family members and tribal community, closure has not yet come.
Last January, when District Attorney Dale Trigg dismissed the case against Dante’s suspected killer (a 16-year-old Native boy from the same community) citing insufficient evidence, Dante’s mother, Martha Romannose-Jones, expressed her anguish on Facebook:
Since then, the family’s outcry for justice has grown louder. Family members publicly expressed outrage over what they believe was a mishandling of the case by law enforcement, and have organized marches and rallies under the banner “Justice for Dante.” The most recent march took place on May 14 to mark the anniversary of the tragedy and was attended by roughly 100 tribal community members, family and friends who took to the streets of nearby Crescent City.
“This is part of growing up Native. We were raised to be this way, to fight,” said Dante’s cousin Jessica Banuelos, who organized the march. “He can’t speak from the other side of the grave, so it’s up to us to fight for him and make sure he gets justice.”
The story of Dante and his community illustrates an epidemic of violence that is plaguing Native communities and disproportionately affecting young people. Violent acts, including homicides and suicides, are responsible for roughly 75 percent of all deaths among American Indian and Alaska Native youth ages 12-20, according to a report by the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute.
The tragedy is also an example of a widespread failure to prosecute violent crimes that occur on reservations. In 2012, The New Times found that The Justice Department files charges for only about half of all murder investigations in Indian country, and nearly two-thirds of sexual assault cases on reservations get dismissed.
Despite efforts by the federal government to improve policing on tribal land, most notably the Tribal Law and Order Act signed by President Obama in 2010, law enforcement in tribal communities remains complicated. Some reservations have their own tribal police, while others do not. Even tribes that do have their own police are not allowed to prosecute serious crimes within their own justice systems—that task is typically handled by federal prosecutors or the FBI. Tribal officers are also limited in their ability to arrest non-Indians who commit crimes on Tribal land.
The effects of this broken system are staggering. Native American communities and lands experience disproportionately high rates of crime, and the percentage of Native people subjected to violence exceeds all other racial categories. And, nearly one in four Native youth have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—a rate comparable to combat veterans and three times higher than what is found in the U.S. general population.
“If you had a parent die early on, a parent who was an addict, if you were molested, if you were abandoned… [you would] have an incredibly increased chance of being an addict, or of having a miserable life,” said Joseph Giovannetti, Tolowa Dee-Ni’ Nation Council member and Native American Studies professor at Humboldt State University. “Of all these events that can happen to children, much of them are happening in Indian country.”
Giovannetti believes the violence problem affecting tribal communities is exacerbated by criminals who know their chances of getting caught are lower on reservations.
“Criminals have a strategy to target Indians because they know that a lot of reservations don’t have their own police department,” he said. “Not every reservation has a casino to help pay for [a tribal police department] and they learn to target [those] who don’t.”
The Humboldt State professor suggested that federal law enforcement agencies who play a lead role in prosecuting serious crimes committed on reservations, are also to blame.
“There’s been an attitude among federal prosecutors of, ‘If we go down [to the reservation], the report’s not going to be well written, so let’s just forget it.’ The Feds don’t want to get out there because they don’t know if the report will be worth their while.”
The low rate at which the FBI prosecutes crimes in Indian country, particularly around sexual assault and trafficking, is of peak concern, with Native women reporting the highest numbers of rape and sexual abuse. Currently within American Indian and Alaskan Native communities, more than one in three women will experience rape in their lifetime.
The soaring rate of suicide and self harm in the Native American community has been well documented. The Yurok Tribe itself declared a state of emergency earlier this year following a rash of suicides, and they are not the only ones. The Attawapiskat First Nation community in Canada, with a total population of just 2,000 people, has seen over 100 suicide attempts since September.
Like other forms of violence, suicide in Indian country is a youth issue. In tribal communities, 40 percent of suicide victims are between the ages of 15 and 24, with Native young adults exhibiting higher rates of suicide than any other ethnic group.
Native American youth are also more likely than any other racial group to be killed by police.
“Historians have spun this narrative where 98 percent of the American tribes have ‘disappeared.’ They use the word disappear rather than starved and murdered,” said Giovannetti. “These people have 165 years worth of being brutalized. They’re entitled to their opinion about how the courts should be changed. You tell somebody who is dying inside, who is depressed, who is poor, to just get over it. You can’t. As Indians, we’re just starting to unpack this stuff.”
Four days before the latest march for Dante, Vincent Schilling, editor of Indian Country Today Media Network, created the hashtag #NoIWontJustMoveOn, which has sparked an online discourse about historical trauma and sovereignty for Native people. Over 15,000 tweets using the hashtag have been shared by people demanding measures be taken to address genocide, injustice, and the decolonization of First Nations.
Meanwhile, Dante’s family is intent on letting anyone who will listen know that he was “a good boy, a lover, a peacekeeper among his brothers.”
His great-grandmother, Ann Garrett said, “They’re trying to make him look like a druggie, but he wasn’t. He was a child. They’re doing the same thing to his whole family.”
And Dante’s mother is still waiting for justice.
“We’re native, we’re not perfect,” said Romannose-Jones. “My family’s got [criminal] records, but Dante was born here. He lived and he died here. The detectives should’ve cared more about my child… Every one of us makes a mark on affecting the change we want to see on a system that allows this to happen to a child.”
This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.
Jacob Patterson is a Queer activist with a passion for social justice, gender equality, and storytelling through digital media. Hailing from rural Crescent City, California, she returned to Del Norte County and Adjacent Tribal Lands after exploring her love for travel and volunteer work abroad. Since her return, she has begun community organizing, focusing on outreach work with youth, particularly women, girls, and members of the LGBTQ community. Currently a Youth Leader with the Opportunity Youth Initiative, she is working towards addressing youth disengagement in education and the local workforce. Jacob serves on Coastal Connections Youth Center Council, and facilitates a local community group, Gender Talk, with the mission of providing education, information, and support to all on issues of social disparities—work that takes form in weekly radio broadcasts, print publications, and video productions. Reporting interests for Jacob include equitable sex education, body autonomy, the BLM movement, indigenous peoples' rights, domestic violence prevention, immigration reform, universal health care access, and creating safe spaces for Femme, Queer, and Trans bodies. When Jacob is not working on a campaign or out smashing the patriarchy, she is at home playing with her three dogs.