Death Row

Native Americans

Use of the death penalty against Native Americans raises issues of racial discrimination, tribal sovereignty, and the limits of state and federal jurisdiction. Execution of Native Americans is linked to the United States’ history of colonialism and the genocide of Native Americans.


Before the European exploration and colonial conquest of North America, the indigenous population consisted of more than 700 separate cultural units speaking more than 300 languages. A greater number of Indians were killed through European conquest than Europeans were killed by the Black Death pandemic in the 14th century. The first legally sanctioned execution of a Native American occurred in 1639. Military authorities beheaded a man named Nepauduck for the murder of a white man, Abraham Finch. While thousands of extra-judicial lynchings of Native Americans occurred in early American history, 464 Native Americans have been executed through the legal system. In 1711, the first recorded execution of a Native American woman occurred when Connecticut hanged a woman named Waisoiusksquaw for the murder of her husband.

Since 1976, 18 Native Americans have been executed by a total of eight states. Six of those executions have taken place in Oklahoma. As of April 2022, 24 individuals identified as Native American were on death rows across the country. In July 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had never disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Reservation, which encompasses the eastern half of Oklahoma, and that Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to capitally prosecute enrolled members of the Native American Nations for crimes committed on those lands.

Native Americans and the Criminal Justice System

The American native crime victimization rate is twice that of non-Indians. National crime victimization surveys reveal that whites perpetrate 57% of the violent crimes committed against American Indians. 80% of sexual assaults against Native Americans are perpetrated by whites.

The incarceration rate of Native Americans is 38% higher than the national rate. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights attributes this higher rate to differential treatment by the criminal justice system, lack of access to adequate counsel and racial profiling. Law enforcement agents arrest American Indians and Alaskan Natives at twice the rate of the greater U.S. population for violent and property crimes. On average, American Indians receive longer sentences than non-Indians for crimes. They also tend to serve longer time in prison for their sentences than non-Native Americans. The suicide rate is higher among American native inmates incarcerated in jails than non-Indians. Within the prison system, Native Americans are often subject to abuse when attempting to identify with native cultures through the wearing of head-bands, using native languages, maintaining long-braided hair, listening to native music, and securing culturally-related educational material.


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