Growing tensions in Lawrence's Native American community cannot be ignored.
Dissatisfaction over how the unexplained deaths of three local Indian men were investigated has now churned into a controversy that threatens to drive dangerous wedges between the Native American community and the rest of Lawrence. The tragedy of the recent deaths will be compounded if tensions between Native Americans and city officials are allowed to develop into a potentially violent situation.
Unfortunately, some of the emotional battle lines already have been drawn, with much of the attention being focused on the April 21 shooting of 22-year-old Gregory Sevier by two Lawrence police officers. The jury in a coroner's inquest concluded Wednesday that the shooting was justifiable. The finding was immediately assailed by one Indian leader, who accused both police officers and the district attorney of lying, and called the inquest a "sham," at least in part because the facts were considered by an all-white jury. His frustration is understandable, but such comments only serve to inflame an already tense situation between law enforcement officials and the Indian community.
Although Dist. Atty. Jim Flory is not bound by the conclusions drawn in the coroner's inquest, he has chosen not to pursue criminal charges against the two officers involved. The case will not be closed entirely, however, because a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe of possible civil rights violations is still active. The legal wheels will continue to turn, but perhaps more important than any legal action that could occur in the case is the action the Lawrence community takes itself to try to address problems among its Native American members.
That action needs to occur at all levels. City officials need to sit down with leaders from Haskell Indian Junior College and other Native American leaders and listen to their concerns in a sincere and understanding manner. For their part, the Indian community needs to address the issues in an objective way that will be constructive and cooperative, not divisive and accusatory.
Efforts such as the vigil that began today in South Park also may help ease the situation. The Native American healing ceremony has been organized in a tepee in the park, and local churches have been invited to conduct services during the vigil. Lawrence could certainly use a little healing right now.
At the individual level, it might behoove all Lawrence residents those with Indian blood as well as those without to examine their prejudices and consider how they might eliminate some of the biases that have become part of their everyday thoughts and actions. Prejudices often are the result of a lack of understanding. Rather than driving wedges in the community, leaders should be looking for ways to bring Lawrence residents together.
All of Lawrence shares the sorrow and concern of local Native Americans over the untimely deaths of four young men. The best possible memorial to those young men would be positive, constructive action to prevent further tensions and tragedy for Lawrence's Indian community.