by Jennifer K. BauerThe “thin blue line,” is a term used to describe the police officer’s role of separating the good from the bad while upholding the peace and preventing chaos.
One challenge is that, in reality, clear cut words like “good” and “bad” don’t account for the complexities of life.
As racial justice protests call attention to the role and power of police in society, the Nez Perce Tribe’s police chief, Harold Scott, has a front-row seat to multiple perspectives. A Nez Perce Native American who found himself in handcuffs as a youth, he now leads officers in one of the most dangerous professions.
“As law enforcement officers, we signed up for this position. Our life can change in a second,” Scott said. “My job is to do the best I can to make sure each officer is able to go home and live life, and at the same time maintain the safety in our community. And that is a really tough mental job on every officer. No matter all the right they do, there’s always somebody saying they’re doing it wrong.”
Scott, 60, grew up on the Nez Perce Reservation he now patrols, in a family that protected and stood up for tribal treaty rights. As a 12-year-old he remembers watching his mother, Clara Ramsey Scott, pack boxes of food to send to supporters of the American Indian Movement during the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973. A few years later, she orchestrated a standoff at Rapid River, outside Riggins. Idaho Fish and Game banned salmon fishing on the river because of low fish return numbers. Many Nez Perce recognized this as a violation of their 1855 treaty rights guaranteed by the federal government, which the state had no authority to supersede.
“I was visiting with my mother, and she told me at the time, we don’t need a violent protest but we need to let the state know they don’t have the right to close that river,” Scott recalled. He agreed to go and contacted his eight brothers. “Thirty-three of us made the first trip. Law enforcement was already waiting for us.”
Some of the protestors were beaten, he said. He was arrested but later released when police discovered he was a juvenile.
“It was no polite arrest,” he said. “I was packed out.”
A judge later upheld the Nez Perce’s right to fish.
Growing up in Lapwai, Scott had other negative encounters with officers, which fostered a feeling of mistrust.
“Several times racial words were used against me for being a person of brown skin color,” he said.
He was handcuffed on several occasions, “for basically nothing.”
So it surprised his family when, while studying to be a coach at Lewis-Clark State College, he switched majors to criminal justice to pursue a career in law enforcement. His experiences as a youth, and a discussion with a school counselor, shaped his decision, he said. He wanted to approach policing in a more positive way.
“When I came into law enforcement on the other side, (those people) became my friends. I’ve learned to communicate with them, talk with them. I’ve learned to explain,” Scott said. “The most important thing I believe anyone can have is communication.”
In his office at tribal police headquarters in Lapwai, an abalone shell holding ashes and a bundle of sage sits ready for use on a conference table. Behind his desk, a porcupine headdress hangs on the wall near an eagle feather bustle, traditional clothing he wears in ceremonial dances.
“The reason why I display it and have it is, I just like people to know, that’s who I am. I’ve never changed because I became a police officer. It doesn’t change who I am.”
Sharing Nez Perce culture with other law enforcement officers has been an emphasis for Scott since becoming chief in 2016. When he arrived, the department had a cultural program in place designed to educate new officers about the Nez Perce, whether they were native or not. Sgt. John Williamson created the program about seven years ago as a way to decrease turnover within the agency. Williamson, who has been with the department for about 17 years and has a background in social work, noticed that those with a basic common understanding of Nez Perce culture had more successful interactions.
“The culture out here is a little bit different, from something as simple as how we bury our own people,” Williamson said. “I wanted to give officers coming in to serve our people a basic understanding of culture and history so that they would be able to have a better understanding of where our people are at and how our people got to this place we’re at right now. … When Chief Scott came on, he really thought this was something other departments could learn from.”
The program explains customs like burning sage and sweetgrass and the importance of “first foods” like camas root, salmon and buffalo for the Nez Perce on physical, emotional and spiritual levels. It explains treaties, tribal sovereignty and various laws and historical events that have shaped Nez Perce perspectives. For example, while the Constitution guarantees people freedom of religion, this right was not secured for Native Americans until the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Many people are unaware of that, said Williamson, who was a toddler when they gained the freedom.
The cultural program is designed to build bridges, not elevate Nez Perce culture above other people’s ways, Williamson said.
“I believe if we sit down and talk, we’re going to find out we have more in common than we do differences,” he said. “People want to feel safe and secure in their homes. No matter what color you are or religion, everybody wants that for their people.”
Scott said area FBI agents have participated in the program, and he has invited other area law enforcement entities to participate. Several, including the Lewiston Police Department, have expressed interest.
“We all understand that learning and understanding other cultures can bridge that gap, and it’s a proactive approach,” said Lt. Jeff Klone, of the Lewiston Police Department. “Since we work closely with Nez Perce Tribal Police and regularly come into contact with (tribal) members in town, anything that would help us be proactive and help build that understanding would be beneficial.”
Since taking his post, Scott said he’s received several calls from Nez Perce citizens claiming to have been pulled over by police without cause.
Historical trauma plays a big role when people encounter racism, Scott said.
“It’s hard for anybody to understand until you’ve actually had to live it,” he said. “I can relate, because I’ve lived it.”
Being pulled over for no reason is a trauma many Nez Perce have encountered, he said.
“It’s still happening today. Will they call me and tell me about it? Yes they will,” he said. “I feel that, in the position I am in today, if I can speak for them and educate, I will do the best I can.”
When the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley Black Lives Matter Peace Rally took place in June, Scott was in attendance because tribal members were involved. He supported their right to speak up.
“They have the right to voice their opinion without being persecuted, the right to talk about their rights,” he said. “Those who have been civilly violated, those are the ones coming out today.”
Scott said he isn’t always able to give tribal people an answer they want to hear because he is sworn to uphold specific laws and policies, but the teachings passed down to him don’t conflict with the oaths he has taken.
“I think the biggest thing passed down has been, respect the people you work with and the people who surround you.”