Tribe’s mental illness safety course may deter police shootings
At the funeral for Ma-hi-vist Goodblanket, his grandmother pays her last respects. | Courtesy Melissa Goodblanket

VINITA, Okla.—“They [police] murdered our son,” says Melissa Goodblanket. One tribe in Oklahoma is trying to prevent this from ever happening again. Law enforcement engagement with persons with mental illness may be safer due to Native American tribal programs. Despite attempts by the Trump administration to cut monies for Indian Health services, the Cherokee nation is leading by example far above what Trump’s administration is proposing.

Federal grants supplied to the Cherokee Nation allow for training for local law enforcement, youth workers, and health officials with mental illness first aid in crisis situations. With over 5000 instructors nationwide, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma has six.

Against a history of numerous reported deaths of Native persons with mental illness, many more could be averted by this training. The Cherokee Nation said, “More than 20 people from Cherokee Nation Health Services and surrounding health care agencies were involved in the most recent training in Vinita. During the 8-hour course, participants memorized a 5-step action plan and were taught how to identify mental health risk factors, offer support and be effective communicators.”

CNN reported Native persons are killed by police at a higher rate than other minorities, as confirmed by data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Benjamin Whiteshield was killed by Oklahoma police in 2012. “According to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, his family had brought him to the local police station because he had been “acting delusional.” Police said he was holding a wrench and was shot in the mouth after a confrontation with an officer.

Al-Jazeera in  2016 said, “After family members of several Native Americans with mental illness asked authorities for help, their relatives were later killed by law enforcement. The scenario has played out in Custer County and elsewhere in Western Oklahoma at least three times in recent years.Eighteen-year-old Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket was killed after his parents call 911 while he was in the midst of a mental episode. “The family wanted help from medical personnel and law enforcement calming down Mah-hi-vist. But it did not work out that way. Instead, lawmen shot and killed Red Bird. The young man’s tragic fate highlights a series of deadly Oklahoma incidents in which mentally ill Native Americans encountered law enforcement officers who, campaigners and relatives say, are not trained properly in how to deal with them.” The parents say the police murdered their son.

Oklahoma Native Zachary Bearheels died after being tased 12 times by police in Nebraska. The Washington Post reported in 2017, “After the electric shocks failed to incapacitate the 29-year-old man, an officer pulled Bearheels to the ground, grabbed his ponytail, and dragged him to the police car, authorities said. Another officer punched him in the head repeatedly while the shocks continued.” Bearheels had a history with mental illness.

Not only Native Americans with mental illness are killed by police in Oklahoma. African-American Joshua Barre, age 29, was killed by Tulsa police in 2017 and he too suffered from mental illness. He was in a mental episode when he was shot dead. Tulsa World reported that tempers flared as an emotional crowd the police estimated at 300 people condemned the latest deadly police encounter in north Tulsa. Protesters chanted “F— the police” from behind crime scene tape and shouted obscenities at investigators.

Cherokee Nation Behavioral Health Special Projects Officer and certified instructor Tonya Boone has already led eight classes, including her most recent adult mental health first aid class at the Cherokee Nation Vinita Health Center.

“I am honored to be part of the awareness movement of mental health issues,” Boone said. “I was certified in August of 2017 and have since certified around 150 individuals. The Cherokee Nation is also fortunate to have other instructors who are certified in a variety of the courses.”

Cherokee Nation Behavioral Health Clinic Administrator Joni Lyon said that for her team of certified instructors it is about more than training, it is about making a life-or-death difference on the ground.

“We are invested in providing education and information for our communities regarding mental health and substance abuse,” Lyon said. “We want to ensure our communities are provided with appropriate information and education to assist persons seeking services in their community.”

Each of the five courses the Cherokee Nation teaches, funded through a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration grant and the Indian Health Service, teaches specific risk factors and warning signs of mental illness and how they relate to an emergency situation. Instructors can be certified in any number of the courses, and certifications must be renewed every three years.

Proposed federal budget cuts indicate a great deal about the priorities of the Trump administration: Spare nothing for the 1 percent, and the rest of the country be damned.


Mark Maxey
Mark Maxey

Oklahoman Mark Maxey is a Yuchi Indian, enrolled in the Muscogee Nation, and has a degree in radio/TV/film. He is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO. He’s worked as an administrative assistant, petroleum landman, barista, staff writer, paralegal, content producer and graphic designer. He spent six months as a National Data Team volunteer for the Bernie Sanders for President campaign.