Epidemic Violence on Indian Reservations Must Be Addressed

By Gail Skenandore and Tom H. Hastings

Ceasar Quilantan was almost 26 when he was gunned down on his home turf, the Gila River Indian Community, part of the Pima nation in Arizona. 

Ceasar was my (Gail’s) grandson, and I was deeply shocked the night of December 1, 2019, to get a call that he had been shot that evening at a friend’s house in Third Circle Housing, a HUD project. 

I’ve been in mourning ever since. 

Ceasar and his friend Ramsey were walking, laughing, and a vehicle pulled up.

Six shooters unloaded into the two young men. Ramsey survived multiple gunshot wounds and my grandson didn’t. 

Violence on the reservation is an epidemic and little is done to prevent it or even bring it to anyone’s attention. The tribal members seem too frightened to do much, the nearby Phoenix police seem unable or unwilling to get involved, and the word we get is that no one will say anything, out of personal terror at the violence visiting anyone who speaks. 

Herodotus said the most unnatural act is for a parent to bury a child–he said that in opposition to war. But even more unnatural is for a grandmother to bury her grandson. This war must stop.

I (Tom) used to take Ceasar canoeing when he stayed with Grandmother Gail. We went up and down the rivers–the mighty Columbia and the great big Willamette. 

Ceasar loved and respected his Grandmother. This was obvious to anyone and he paddled hard in the bow while Grandmother Gail waited by the picnic lunch on the blanket on the beach on the bank of the broad Columbia. We paddled to Washington and back to Oregon, upstream and downstream. The 11-year-old boy was smiling as he proudly hopped out and pulled us ashore. 

He helped me (Gail) whenever I needed it. In those years, I was a core member of a community that offered housing to women who would otherwise be homeless, so I needed help cleaning, cooking, gardening, and with the many tasks associated with keeping several women housed and fed and in touch with an array of social services. Ceasar was loved by everyone.

It is tough to think of such a young man, shot dead for inexplicable reasons by people who may never even be identified. 

It is also very hard to consider how much violence is epidemic on our reservation and that it is not who we are, but it seems to be who we are becoming. 

My job (Tom) is to know about conflict and how to transform destructive conflict into constructive, creative, productive conflict. It is what I teach and what I research. 

My job (Gail) is to know my people, to love my immediate and extended family, and to ponder the ways in which this godawful plague of violence can be ended in a Good Way. 

While it is entirely possible for the Gila River Pima to be a model to other communities and solve this problem entirely on their own, it is also crucial to understand the long timelines of causation and structural impediments to progress. In that regard, external assistance is desperately needed as well. 

When four out of five Native women experiences violence, an intervention is required. 

So we believe a light needs to shine on these pockets of escalating violence. The intersection of guns, drugs, poverty, scant education, substandard health care, high unemployment, and corruption are literally producing conditions that invariably redound the hardest and worst on young people of color, Gila River Native Americans in this case. 

At a time when divisive language from our nation’s highest executive is common and hatred is encouraged in his political rallies, can we be sober for a minute and confront the pain of losing a grandson?

Can we consider anyone of any color or creed who is suffering right now? Can we interrupt privilege and elite wealth long enough to begin to lift this burden of violence and poverty?

This is what is called for. I (Gail) do not wish my heart-hurt on anyone. I cry at least a few times a day thinking of Caesar and do not wish this injury on anyone else. 

What I do know is that what we have right now is not working. 

Can we think together in a Good Way to overcome more and more of these terrible factors?

Dr. Tom H. Hastings is PeaceVoice Director and on occasion an expert witness for the defense in court. Gail Skenandore is a Gila River Pima tribal member and a long-time worker for the poorest of the poor.

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