Authors’ note: The term “Indian Country” appears in this column because it is frequently used by Tribal nations to describe their communities.
When Taylor Humphrey first went to college, he moved from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota to St. Paul, a predominantly white city four hours to the south. He eventually got a beater car—a rusty, two-decade-old Mazda 626 with 250,000 miles on it—and the police would pull him over again and again, especially at night after he left work. “It’s 9 o’clock in St. Paul, and I’m a dark person driving around in a bad-looking car,” he recalled. “It seemed like everybody just wanted to search it.”
Eventually, Humphrey returned to his reservation, where those troubling experiences helped convince him to enroll at Leech Lake Tribal College (LLTC) to become a police officer himself.
Today, Humphrey is the domestic violence and sexual assault investigator for the Leech Lake Tribal Police Department, where he is dedicated to getting “more of our people protecting our people.”
LLTC was founded in 1990 by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and served 235 students in the 2019-20 academic year. Among the college’s strengths are both academic and community-oriented programs in the arts and cultural practices, including sculpture, tanning and moccasin making, and wild rice harvesting. These are much more than just arts programming; such practices are core to Tribal college and universities’ (TCUs) efforts to heal their people and restore knowledge taken through forced assimilation, teaching not only skills but also the Tribal philosophy and the history behind those practices.
The point is to help infuse the ranks of the police force with these younger, more progressive, diverse individuals who can bring different outlooks and different ideas to these organizations.
LLTC President Helen Zaikina-Montgomery
Unlike many mainstream colleges and universities, LLTC addresses students’ basic needs and nonacademic challenges through cultural sensitivity and one-on-one relationships. The college’s weekly drum ceremony—a central feature of Ojibwe tradition—is accompanied by a feast, giving students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to connect as a community and reinforcing that the students are valued. Faculty and staff prepare the meal, and even the president is on one of four teams that take turns shopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up.
In addition to emotional and cultural sustenance, this meal offers needed physical sustenance. For some students, that might be the one really good meal they have that week, according to officials—a reflection of what many Tribal college students face. A 2019 survey from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University and the American Indian College Fund found that more than 6 in 10 TCU students had been food insecure in the previous 30 days.
Another thing LLTC leaders are proud of is the law enforcement associate degree program that Humphrey graduated from, one of several programs in criminal justice or law enforcement at Tribal colleges.
A different outlook on law enforcement
To some, Native Americans and law enforcement programs may seem like strange bedfellows, as Native people have experienced the same issues of racial profiling and excessive use of force that have engendered mistrust of police in Black and Latino communities. In fact, Native Americans die in police shootings at three times the rate of white people.
Meanwhile, in an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women—which also affects men, children, and transgender people—many cases have gone unsolved, betraying the failure of the justice system as a whole to protect Native Americans. At the same time, high levels of poverty, trauma, and substance abuse in Indian Country—all factors that make people more likely to have negative interactions with police—are rooted in historical trauma stemming from centuries of U.S. government oppression; removal of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children from their families; and forced assimilation at federal and religious boarding schools.
Amid a national reckoning on racism and police brutality, which came to a head in 2020, higher education leaders and scholars have pursued a range of efforts to train more police officers of color and better educate future officers, no matter their racial or ethnic background, on how to serve diverse communities equitably and effectively. Those values have long driven LLTC’s approach to law enforcement, according to officials.
To me, the biggest challenge is getting into their minds and letting them know, ‘Hey, you can do this.’
Frank Homer, coordinator of LLTC’s law enforcement program
“I think, on the part of everyone—educators, municipalities, states—there’s an elevated consciousness that some approaches in law enforcement need to change,” said LLTC President Helen Zaikina-Montgomery. At her college, “the point is to help infuse the ranks of the police force with these younger, more progressive, diverse individuals who can bring different outlooks and different ideas to these organizations.”
In the past decade, 29 students have earned an associate degree in law enforcement from LLTC, a number that reflects the college’s overall small size. The college’s graduates have gone on to serve in the Tribal police force, in nearby county agencies (one of which has overlapping jurisdiction with Tribal police on the reservation), and as conservation officers for the state or Tribe.
The program’s coordinator, Frank Homer, sees a core part of his mission as convincing Native American students that they could have a successful future in law enforcement, even if, like Humphrey, they’ve had negative dealings with police or a few legal troubles themselves. “To me, the biggest challenge is getting into their minds and letting them know, ‘Hey, you can do this,’” said Homer, who is also department chair for career and technical education.
Alannah Weitzel, a single mother of five who graduated from the program this spring, didn’t need convincing that she could do the job well but said she might not have considered the profession if she didn’t have the opportunity to study it at a Tribal college. Weitzel was drawn to the field because of her outrage about tragedies, including George Floyd’s murderer, and so many cases in her community of missing and murdered Indigenous women and men. She decided that she wanted to make a difference and push for reform from the inside.
Weitzel’s hope is that “being a Native American woman in a law enforcement career, you would have a bigger voice and people would definitely hear you.”
COVID-19 relief funding proves pivotal
The COVID-19 relief dollars Congress approved for Tribal colleges and universities in 2020 and 2021 have allowed LLTC to make some major steps to improve outcomes for its students, including its law enforcement students, and that work gives some insight into what more funding could do for TCUs more broadly.
The college was concerned that roughly half its law enforcement graduates were not going on to get licensed as Minnesota peace officers for two reasons—cost and physical conditioning. Getting licensed requires attending an additional summer-long program costing more than $5,000 and passing an exam that includes measures of physical fitness.
After receiving COVID-19 relief funding, the college was able to fund four of its graduates this spring to attend the post-graduation police skills program, which prepares candidates for the Minnesota Board of Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) exam. (The fifth and final graduate was pregnant and plans to attend later.) Now, with both federal and Tribal support, LLTC is setting up a bigger and better gym.
“COVID funds have been so transformative to all of our programs,” said Zaikina-Montgomery. “That, right there, is good evidence for the federal government that if our funding is increased, TCUs can thrive even more.”
All four of the graduates who were funded passed the academic portion of the police skills program, but two have to retake the physical conditioning portion of the program. (They graduated too soon to take advantage of the new gym.)
Homer noted that graduates who don’t immediately go on to become licensed usually still take jobs relevant to their degree, such as working as a conservation officer on the reservation, as a probation or corrections officer, or as a child welfare assessment worker. Others transfer directly to a university to earn their bachelor’s degree.
Even if we let go of all of the unratified treaties, the theft of land, all the historical trauma—which is impossible—our graduates and employees still go into the workforce in the state of Minnesota.
LLTC President Helen Zaikina-Montgomery
The law enforcement program is just one of the priorities where the college has infused relief funding. LLTC was also able to erect a new prefabricated building for students in its Integrated Residential Builder associate degree program so students could continue learning amid the pandemic with social distancing. Additionally, the college has been able to boost its programs to help feed hungry students, beefing up the campus food pantry and hiring a student to help with the weekly feast, while also taking on extra tasks—for example, repurposing leftovers into soup that is offered to anyone on campus.
Zaikina-Montgomery is also hoping to see the Minnesota Legislature adopt a proposal made in its last session to appropriate $1 million to each of three Tribal colleges. LLTC already receives some state funding for non-Tribally enrolled students—which is more than many states offer—but Zaikina-Montgomery argues that it doesn’t reflect the value that the college provides the state in educating both Native and non-Native students.
“Even if we let go of all of the unratified treaties, the theft of land, all the historical trauma—which is impossible,” she said, “our graduates and employees still go into the workforce in the state of Minnesota, they buy goods in the state of Minnesota, they buy property in the state of Minnesota.”
On the syllabus: Understanding the communities police serve
It was an unseasonably warm January evening in Minnesota, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark, when Ryan Fisher welcomed students to the first night of his Community Policing on Tribal Lands class, which was being offered virtually. Four students joined over Zoom, one of them a car passenger with his bundled-up baby in the back seat. Fisher joined from his dining room and was recording the session for the fifth enrolled student, who couldn’t make it that night.
Fisher already knew most of the students from an ethics class he also teaches, but he shared a bit about himself, including that he had worked for the Leech Lake Tribal Police Department for several years before joining the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, which also operates on the reservation. He talked about his love for his current job as an investigator, where he sees himself as an advocate for the most vulnerable of victims, including children and victims of sex crimes.
I think it’s important for young officers to understand the culture that they’re going to be experiencing.
Ryan Fisher, former instructor at LLTC and investigator with Cass County Sheriff’s Office
After the students introduced themselves, Fisher asked them to describe what “community policing” meant to them before sharing facets of what the concept means to him: looking to the community to partner in solving problems, getting out of the patrol car and building relationships, playing basketball with kids, and understanding cultural practices in the community the students would serve, like smudging. “I think it’s important for young officers to understand the culture that they’re going to be experiencing,” he said.
In speaking with a visitor toward the end of class, Fisher and one of the students expressed feelings that law enforcement has been unfairly maligned in the media, and the instructor talked about low morale in the profession in recent years. But Fisher—who has since moved on to teach at a nearby state university—also said “it kills us” to see relationships between community and police fracturing, as with the unrest that gripped Minneapolis after George Floyd was murdered by police in 2020. He criticized the “thin blue line” culture within the profession that creates mistrust with the community.
A Tribal education
Taylor Humphrey, the investigator for the Tribal police force, is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. He grew up on the reservation in a family that has maintained its hunter-gatherer traditions, including hunting deer and waterfowl, ice fishing, collecting wild blueberries and strawberries, and harvesting fallen trees and wild rice. When he was a kid, his grandparents pegged him as a future police officer because he was the youngest of a tightknit group of cousins and “kind of the bossy one, trying to keep everyone in line,” he recalls.
By the time he enrolled at LLTC, Humphrey was a married father working part time. The campus was 200 yards from his back door and had a child care center for his daughter. The cost was covered entirely by Tribal and state scholarships, and he feels that the law enforcement program gave him a thorough understanding of the public safety issues on the reservation.
We're here to talk to you as humans, first and foremost. We're here to help. And I think the best way we can help—if it’s something that interests you—is to get more of our own people behind the badge.
Taylor Humphrey, domestic violence and sexual assault investigator for the Leech Lake Tribal Police Department
Most of those who Humphrey encounters in his job are people he knows, or perhaps the cousin or uncle of someone he knows—a familiarity that, he believes, tends to lower tensions. He has even been told on occasion, “I was going to run, and then I saw it was you.”
“It’s really nice to have that built in rapport with people, especially because a lot of times, I’m talking to them on their darkest day,” he said.
Humphrey tries to put himself in the shoes of the people he encounters as much as possible—for example, not towing someone’s car if they are pulled over without a license and instead letting them ask someone to come pick them up. That was a small kindness Humphrey recalled he once had to beg an officer for during his time in St. Paul, when his license was suspended for a parking ticket he didn’t realize he had.
Humphrey also loves going into schools and chatting with kids, hoping they will conclude that he and his colleagues are approachable, and serving as a role model and maybe even planting the seeds of a future career.
“We’re here to talk to you as humans, first and foremost,” he tells the students. “We’re here to help. And I think the best way we can help—if it’s something that interests you—is to get more of our own people behind the badge.”