Helena, MT – Indigenous people from across Montana arrived in Helena for a hearing on Cole v. Oravec, a case regarding equal law enforcement resources and treatment for missing and murdered indigenous people cases. This morning a hearing for the case of Cole v. Oravec was argued in front of Judge Hadin in Helena district court. The case against an FBI agent put forth by the family of the deceased, Steven Bearcrane Cole, a member of the Crow tribe, seeks justice, as well as the same protections and services by federal law enforcement for Native Americans as given to non-Indians.
In 2007, Steven was shot and killed by a white co-worker on a ranch located in the Crow reservation. Currently, tribal police can not arrest or prosecute non-Indians for crimes, and the FBI investigates all major crimes on Indian reservations. The FBI investigated Steven’s death and the case concluded with the agent accepting the co-worker’s claim of self-defense. Steven’s family asserts that the FBI agent neglected the investigation and has a history of ignoring crimes against Native Americans, even at one point allegedly stating, “it’s just another dead Indian.”
A recent Bureau of Justice statistics report showed that, “American Indians age 25 to 34, the rate of violent crime victimizations was more than 2½ times the rate for all persons the same age.”
Earline Cole, Steven’s mother, reflected on her son “Steven is such a nice guy, he helps everybody. We know in our hearts that Steven did not provoke his murderer to shoot.”
According to Trish Bangert, attorney for the Bearcrane family, “There’s a tremendous amount of evidence that shows the incident was not self defence. The agent in question, in a sworn affidavit, expressed racial bias against Bearcrane and created an investigation to fit that presumption of guilt. That is unconstitutional.”
The Cole v. Oravec case has already set precedent in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle which found that the Federal government can be sued for violations of the equal protection clause. Oral arguments were delivered today, but no decision was made. Steven’s family hopes for a reconsideration of victim benefits if the court deems that the FBI investigation was discriminatory in nature.
The court’s decision will determine if the case will proceed as the Federal government has submitted a motion to dismiss.
Western Native Voice is a non-profit, non-partisan social justice organization working to inspire Native leadership through community organizing, education, leadership, and advocacy. With 7% of Montana’s population being Native American living almost evenly split between reservation and urban areas, WNV organizes in both rural and urban communities using a culturally tailored community organizing and citizen education model to build Native leadership.