Native women work to break the cycle of poverty, prison in Minnesota
Native American women make up less than 1% of Minnesota’s overall population but are 20% of the state's female prison inmates.
BEMIDJI -- For nearly a decade, Tiffany Kingbird went from jail to prison to jail, leaving a trail of charges mostly related to drugs and the property crimes she committed to pay for drugs.
“Your soul gets tired,” said Kingbird, 37, as she spoke recently of her years fighting addiction, and a resulting string of arrests and incarcerations. “Just that lifestyle, going in and out of jail and just having nothing, always having nothing. Just coming out and picking back up where you left off, because you didn't have nowhere to go.”
That downward spiral is deeply rooted in the historical poverty, generational trauma and persistent judicial system bias against Indigenous people in Minnesota. The data around Native women is especially startling. They make up less than 1% of Minnesota’s overall population but are 20% of the state's female prison inmates.
While many of the crimes that lead to jail or prison time are relatively small-time offenses — stealing, drug use, failure to show for a court date — the consequences of incarcerating Native women are enormous and cascading: children separated from mothers, metastasizing family poverty, financial and psychological costs that linger for generations.
In Bemidji, Kingbird and other Native women are part of a growing effort to share their stories and break the cycle. A pilot project intended to help women find their economic footing and reconnect to their families spiritual lives offers hope and shows promise. Safe housing is often the first need, and securing that can light the way.
Observers worry permanent change won’t come until Native people are no longer disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system. That fact shows few signs of changing. In Beltrami County, near Minnesota’s three most populous reservations, 70 percent of people arrested on an outstanding warrant over the past five years were American Indian.
‘Eventually, I just gave up’
Themes surface in the stories of many Native women: youthful mistakes that morph into insurmountable hurdles, poverty that couldn’t be overcome, family rifts that wouldn’t heal, addiction and violence that fell on them and those they love.
Tiffany Kingbird was raised mostly by her grandmother while her parents struggled with addiction. She recalls a “pretty good childhood” growing up on the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, going to school and traveling with family to powwows.
Things changed in her late teens when a family member brought her cocaine, opening the door to a persistent drug habit. Her life was upended about 10 years ago, she said, by the death of her grandmother, the person she leaned on most.
“When I lost her, everybody lost me,” Kingbird recalled.
She survived violent relationships. She was homeless. Her drug addiction deepened.
“I was pregnant with my baby. And I couldn't quit, so I did drugs through my pregnancy with my youngest one,” Kingbird said. “And they took her right from the hospital when I had her.”
Reconnecting with her daughters, ages 18 and 10, has been a primary motivation for Kingbird to maintain sobriety for the past three years.
“The only time my kids ever heard from me is when I was locked up. And I was sick of saying the same shit, promising stuff that I wasn't gonna do,” she said. “So this last time around, I was like, ‘I'm gonna get out. And I'm just going to show them’, and I'm still doing it.”
Billie Mountain’s world changed in March 2005 when a teenager shot and killed seven people at the Red Lake High School where she worked.
“I think it kind of broke me. I don't know, I’ve never talked about it,” said Mountain, 51, as she choked back tears during an interview.
Born in Minneapolis and raised on the Red Lake Reservation, she was “doing what was expected,” raising a family and working.
Soon after the school shooting, she left Red Lake and moved to Bemidji, intending to return to college. Looking back, she believes she was just escaping the trauma of the school shooting.
After life on the isolated reservation, she wasn’t prepared for life in a community where eight in 10 people are white.
“It’s only 30 miles, but you move to Bemidji and it’s like you’re in another world,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh, I gotta come to Bemidji and be white now.’”
“It’s intimidating,” she said. “And then you don't think you are good enough. Or you have to work extra hard to be able to get anywhere.”
The stress led to increased alcohol use, she said, and her first arrest was for drunk driving. Then a new relationship brought her into a circle of people using and selling illegal prescription drugs. That led to more encounters with the justice system.
“I got my kids taken away from me, I lost my house, I lost my job, I had to go to court, and I ended up in jail,” said Mountain.
Mountain shares with other Native women a sense the system is stacked against them, that no one hears them when they ask for help.
After getting out of jail, she struggled to get her kids back from foster care, unable to navigate a system she didn’t understand.
“Depression, anxiety was to the roof,” she said. “And eventually, I just gave up. OK, I'll just go get high, because it's easier,” she said.
Mountain now has a job, her kids are back home, and she’s sober, thanks to support from a local nonprofit organization.
“When I look back on my life, I know where it went wrong was when I was feeling weak, or hopeless, or lost,” she said.
‘We have to take you to jail’
American Indians are often excluded from data comparing incarceration rates based on race.
There are many reasons, including overlapping jurisdictions, differences between tribal justice systems and federal government policies that make data collection difficult, according to the National Institute of Justice.
But available data shows the disproportionate incarceration of American Indians is striking across the justice system.
American Indians are just over 1% of Minnesota’s population, but American Indian women make up about 20% of the inmates at Minnesota’s only women’s prison in Shakopee, and American Indian men make up about 9% of the overall prison population in the state, according to DOC data.
The racial disparity is evident at an early age. Nearly half of the 62 incarcerated Native women interviewed through a project funded by a federal grant reported being arrested more than 10 times before age 18.
The Northwestern Minnesota Juvenile Center in Bemidji housed juveniles from 38 counties last year, but almost 60% came from Beltrami, Cass and Itasca, counties near reservations.
American Indian youth were 58% of the females and 44% of the males housed there, according to the center’s annual report.
Beltrami County is adjacent to three tribal nations located in northern Minnesota. The most recent census data shows about 22% of the county population is American Indian.
They are disproportionately represented in the courts and the county jail. From 2017 to 2022, a total of 70% of people arrested on an outstanding warrant in Beltrami County were American Indian, according to data collected by the sheriff’s office. For the same five-year period, 53% of those arrested for non-warrant offenses were American Indian.
While there is relatively little research on American Indians in the justice system, a recently published peer reviewed study found there is a financial cost for being Native in the Minnesota judicial system.
Researchers analyzed five years of court cases, examining the legal financial obligation imposed by criminal courts.
“We found that Native American defendants had the highest debt load per case, compared to any other racial group,” said University of Maryland assistant professor Robert Stewart.
Researchers found rural counties, and especially those in Indian Country, were more punitive.
“It is when they're in counties that overlap with reservations (or) that are in close proximity to reservations, that they actually receive the highest average fines and fees than any other group,” said Stewart.
Researchers wrote that the average outstanding legal debt for Native defendants was “more than 80% higher than the next highest racial group and more than four times higher than the average debt for white defendants.”
“The counties that really stick out, we're talking about Beltrami, we're talking about Becker, Mahnomen, Mille Lacs County, Cass County,” said Stewart. “These are all counties that have large reservations, or at least are in close proximity to large reservations.”
University of Minnesota doctoral student Brieanna Watters was part of the research team, and heard the stories about the economic impact of legal debt when people have no way to pay.
“What these cases demonstrate is just how compounding fines and fees are, especially for the marginalized people and the poor. They can be very devastating for people and entire communities,” said Watters.
American Indians have the highest poverty rate — 31% — of any racial group in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
The researchers argue in their paper that disproportionate legal debt is an extension of previous government programs such as assimilation, relocation and boarding schools that were intended to break up Indigenous families and communities.
“There's an evolution from targeting the Native collective as a community, to targeting or subjugating individual Native people,” said Watters.
Researchers also interviewed defendants, judges, attorneys and probation officers about the legal, financial disparities they found.
“It was common for judges, prosecutors, and probation officers we interviewed to candidly assert that Native American defendants did not experience racialized disadvantage in the criminal legal system in their jurisdiction,” they wrote.
Beltrami County Attorney David Hanson said his office doesn’t track race data on those charged with crimes, and he rejects the idea the justice system is biased.
“I don't see direct evidence of explicit bias,” he said. “I'm going to prosecute each crime. To seek justice. That's what I do.”
Hanson said he was not aware of disproportionate rates of incarceration for Native women, but he would not be surprised “given the demographics of the county” where American Indians make up about 22% of the population.
“However, if it is statistically unproportionate, or if there's some sort of underlying racial component that is driving it, well, then it would be concerning,” he said.
He sees reducing drug abuse as the key to reducing incarceration rates.
Hanson points to local efforts, including a recently created drug court, but those efforts are limited by lack of resources in one of the poorest counties in Minnesota.
“You know, we're going to put every resource we have available at it, but we don't have a lot of the resources, so it becomes a larger societal question,” Hanson said. “What does the state of Minnesota want to do with this? We're all ears when it comes to solutions, we just need help to implement them.”
Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy Jarrett Walton is very aware that American Indians are disproportionately represented in arrests. He compiled the data showing 70% of people arrested on an outstanding warrant in the county were American Indian.
“A lot of times there's transportation issues, you know, you can't get to your court hearings. Thus, they issue a warrant for your arrest. If you have a warrant, of course, the court says we shall arrest you. So we have to take you to jail,” he said.
Many of those arrests happen because of traffic stops for minor violations. A broken tail light, or a burned-out headlight. Poverty is an underlying factor, said Walton, and the county recently started a voucher program to help pay for minor repairs like a broken tail light, with the intent of reducing those traffic stops.
Beltrami County recently started a program that has a social worker working in the jail, helping connect inmates with services that can help them be successful when they leave the jail.
“This reset program meets them exactly where they're at,” said jail administrator Calandra Allen.
“Some days, you know, if you were battling depression for six months, and you got out of bed and put one step in front of the other, that's a success for that person that day,” she said.
Walton, who's a candidate this year to succeed retiring Sheriff Ernie Beitel, hopes to expand that program, but funding remains a hurdle.
“It comes down to the almighty dollar,” said Walton, who added that the county is looking for creative solutions to add another two or three social workers needed to meet demand in the jail.
“Just so we can provide (inmates) what they need on the outside and help them so they don't have to come back here (to jail),” he said.
The county is also working to restart cultural programs, shuttered by COVID-19 restrictions, where volunteers provide cultural and spiritual counsel to Native American inmates.
County officials are in preliminary discussions about building a new jail, and tribal leaders are part of the steering committee. Walton said those discussions include the need for more space and programming for culturally specific activities.
‘Give them back to the community’
Natasha Kingbird has been in the place where hope is elusive, and she’s using the experience to provide support for Native women trying to overcome the sense that no one cares.
She leads the reentry program at the Northwest Indian Community Development Center in Bemidji where Billie Mountain, Tiffany Kingbird and other women come for support, and help navigating the system. The Kingbirds are relatives.
“I’ve dedicated a lot of time to help women to be looked at as equal and not as ‘Oh they're just a criminal, they ain’t going to amount to nothing,’” Natasha Kingbird said.
The 40-year-old knows about the struggles incarcerated women face. She recalls “a really nice life,” until at age 10 her great grandmother died and her parents split up.
She spent time in foster care, and the Northwest Juvenile Detention Center in Bemidji, where a disproportionate number of children in custody are American Indian.
“I didn't know what I wanted, and I was lost,” she recalled. “I was a young girl trying to figure out what I wanted, not having any guidance and feeling like nobody cared.”
She survived domestic abuse and spent time in jail. Reconnecting with her Anishinaabe culture gave her a new identity, focus and strength. Now she starts every day asking herself what she can do to help other Native women make the same connection.
“You know, I've never experienced this sense of pride,” she said. “I can say that I'm really proud to be Anishinaabe and I'm proud to be a woman who has experienced the same stuff as all these other women. You know, we're smart, and we're gifted, and we just have to find it.”
She’s become a leading advocate for a unique project designed to help incarcerated Native women regain their place in the community.
This month, a pilot project called the Healing House opened in a three bedroom home in Bemidji, and work is underway to raise funds for a much larger facility. The home is leased by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, but the program will be run by the local community.
Bemidji was selected for the pilot project because of its location near the three most populous reservations in the state, and the fact that 40% of the Native women incarcerated by the state return to northwest Minnesota when they are released.
In 2017, the Minnesota Department of Corrections received a $900,000 federal grant to help address violence against women.
The agency collaborated with the Northwest Indian Community Development Center and other nonprofit groups to focus on examining how to help Native women who are disproportionately incarcerated, and more likely to be victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
As part of the project, 62 women either in the Minnesota women's prison in Shakopee, or who had been incarcerated in the past five years, were interviewed in 2019 and 2020 before COVID-19 restrictions ended the interviews.
Nearly nine in 10 of the women said they were dependent on drugs or alcohol. Three-fourths reported mental illness, and 97% reported being victims of violence and abuse before they were incarcerated.
A long list of recommendations for change came out of the project. They include equal access to spiritual advisors and ceremonies in prison, helping women stay connected with children while they are incarcerated, and improved cultural training for prison staff.
But the top issue was safe, supportive housing after release from prison or jail and that’s the first challenge to be addressed through the Healing House model, a concept based on Indigenous cultural and spiritual teachings.
While many correctional release programs focus on helping inmates find housing and get a job, the priority of this model is to help the women heal from trauma.
“That's the whole focus really, about the Healing House. If you can't address that trauma, then everything else is not going to be successful,” said Liz Richards, the corrections department’s director of victim services and restorative justice.
“I am confident that it is going to be far and above more successful than previous models.”
Richards said this model appears to be the first of its kind in the country.
If the program is successful, it might well be because the department is ceding control to the women who have lived the trauma they seek to heal.
That reflects a significant shift in thinking, according to Nikki Engel, policy and legal systems program manager with Violence Free Minnesota, a nonprofit that’s part of the project.
“Government can pay for things like this and they don't need to own them,” she said. “Give them back to the community because the community knows best what is needed to break these cycles and to support the people in their community.”
The data showing disproportionate incarceration rates for Native women in Minnesota is not new. But the stories those 62 women told have shifted the narrative within the Department of Corrections, said Richards.
“Statistics are something that appeals to the head, the stories appeal to the heart. I can give you statistics all day long about disproportionality within the system. We all know those,” she said. “The difference is to hear those stories that really touch people's hearts. I think there are plenty of people who care and who have cared for a long time, but have not known what to do.”
The Healing House project is a first small step toward building trust with Indigenous communities, said Richards.
Addressing the array of issues that contribute to the disproportionate incarceration rates will require a much broader long-term response.
‘I feel complete'
A group of women recently spent a few days meeting with architects in Bemidji, offering insights on what they would want from the Healing House model.
There’s currently no funding in place to build the design they came up with, but Gov. Tim Walz has included money in his budget to fund a project manager for three years. That funding still needs legislative approval.
Community member Renee Gurneau told assembled local and state officials that just adding a cultural component to programs designed for non-Native people will not be successful.
“But what really works for us is having culture-based (programs), rather than having a white system with some culture thrown at it,” she said, as women around the room nodded in agreement. “To really be who we were created to be is guaranteed success.”
Northwest Indian Community Development Center administrator Martin Jennings urged local officials gathered to learn about the Healing House project to think of the formerly incarcerated women gathered around the table in the center of the room as valued community members.
“Think of the women we’re trying to support here as our sisters, our aunties, our grandmothers and mothers. We’ve got to think differently about how we value and see each other in this community,” he said.
Jennings is optimistic, he sees a new level of communication and collaboration with local officials in Bemidji and Beltrami County.
At a recent Bemidji City Council meeting, council members and the mayor expressed support for the Healing House project.
That included Audrey Thayer, the first Native American woman elected to the Bemidji City Council. She’s confident the Healing House will help women find a path that leads them away from the justice system’s revolving door. She thinks the system continues to punish people long after they are released.
It’s like the path now goes straight uphill,” she said. “You paid for what happened in your life, you served some time, you made a mistake. When do we start looking at reconciliation and redemption of a human being in our society?”
Thayer, a long-time community activist and an instructor at the Leech Lake Tribal College, said it’s important to acknowledge the generations of trauma in Indian Country that need to be unraveled.
“It's easier to explain it as a very serious dysfunction that the U.S. government did, trying to mold us into something we weren't by stripping us of who we were,” said Thayer.
“I think we have about three generations of really crazy behavior by the federal government,” she said. “Relocations, assimilation programs, boarding schools, and when you strip somebody of who they are, their values, and you take that all away, you have an empty shell.”
To be successful Thayer believes, reentry programs need to restore those cultural values, filling the empty shell with a sense of identity and purpose.
Tiffany Kingbird is now working at a chemical dependency treatment facility. She’s also trying to rebuild her credit after amassing thousands of dollars in court fees and fines she couldn’t pay.
She credits traditional ceremony and culture with rebuilding her sense of self after more than a decade spent sliding to the depths of addiction and despair.
“I feel complete,” she said. “I don't know how to explain it. I just feel whole, like me again.”