Circle Bear Autopsy Report Released, and The Questions We Must Now Ask

Image: Sarah Lee Circle Bear (

Image: Sarah Lee Circle Bear (

by Sarah Sunshine Manning, Indian Country Today, August 18, 2015

ICT Editor’s Note: On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Sarah Lee Circle Bear, a 24-year-old Native American mother of two who was found unresponsive in her cell at the Brown County Jail in Aberdeen, South Dakota on July 5, died of a meth overdose. State Attorney General Marty Jackley told the AP that there was “acute methamphetamine and amphetamine toxicity” in Circle Bear’s blood at the time of her death. Columnist Sarah Sunshine Manning first broke the news on ICTMN that Circle Bear allegedly had cried for help from her cell prior to her death because she was suffering from excruciating abdominal pain. Jailers allegedly responded to Circle Bear’s pleas with “quit faking.” The following is Manning’s response to the autopsy report as well as the plague of addiction in Indian country:

When we say, “Native Lives Matter,” we do mean all Native lives, right?

The thing about Native people today is that we struggle with addictions, mental health disparities, and shattered family structures. Tracing our history, we now understand that all of this is a direct result of historical trauma and centuries of oppressive federal Indian policies. We didn’t do this ourselves, and in the words of Michelle Obama, “This didn’t happen overnight.”

So now we are faced with communities struggling with addictions, incarcerations, drug overdoses, alcohol and drug related deaths, and suicides. Remember, once again, this didn’t happen overnight.

Yes, it is true, Native people top the charts, so to speak, for nearly every societal ill out there. Does this mean that we are horrible people? That we are addicts and alcoholics? Lazy and weak? As compassionate and mindful people, we all know that the answer to this is clearly no.

Whether it is prescription medication, alcohol, meth, heroine, gambling addictions, or sex addictions, our people are self-medicating. Let’s talk about that – self self-medicating, and this idea that “Native Lives Matter.”

Flash forward to recent debates about how to deal with the monstrous meth problem on reservations. Many have stated that meth is an entirely different monster. It hooks its claws so deeply into your spirit you are unable to even recognize the changes that are so visible to others. It changes the chemistry of your brain, and numbs the emotions that once plagued your consciousness.

So, then, why, we all ask, is meth such a problem on reservations today? Well I hope the discussion becomes more comprehensive. Many Native Americans are broken, abused, and confused, and meth apparently numbs better and if not cheaper than the rest. Yes, we have a meth problem, but we have a mental health problem even greater than that.

The toxicology report of Sarah Lee Circle Bear, who died in early July while in police custody, states that she died of a meth overdose. And if this is true, the pain she cried out for help and relief from was her organs beginning to shut down. Rapid heart rate, pain in her chest, sweating … Sarah was dying. But could she have been saved? According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, yes, you can survive a meth overdose if quick action is taken:

Methamphetamine emergency care

An inmate in the cell next to Circle Bear alleges that Circle Bear pressed the panic button in her cell two separate times, at which jail staff dismissed her cries. A fellow inmate, who is allegedly white, hit the panic button a third time. At least one inmate alleges that staff neglect and harsh dismissal of Circle Bear’s cries contributed to her death.

Could Sarah Lee Circle Bear still be alive today? Does her life matter, even if she had an extreme amount of meth in her system? Did jail staff look upon her as a life that mattered, a life that could be saved?  Had they responded to her cries, would she still be alive?

While this is a difficult issue to probe into, we must ask ourselves: what happens if we don’t ask these questions? If you are closely tied to a reservation community, you are likely connected in some way with an addict or alcoholic. Maybe the person is your sister, or brother, aunt, or uncle, mother or father, daughter or son, and maybe even your significant other. Probe into their addiction, and you will find pain. What if your loved one was sitting in jail, caught in a life or death situation – would you expect that jail staff should respond as their organs begin to shut down? What would you do if you observed their pain at home? Would you dare tell them to “knock it off?”

I’m going to own it: I would not, and I would be ashamed of any relative who dismissed the pain of those who suffer the most.

So, to our relatives and friends who are self-medicating deeply rooted pain to the extent that they do not even entirely understand themselves, how do we respond? How do we respond to someone dying of cancer? How do we respond to someone recovering from suicide? And how do we respond to any human being that we know is suffering?

As a society, we are so conditioned by Western thought to punish and persecute all of those who do not fall in line with social norms. We are conditioned to give them a little or a lot less compassion, because they somehow don’t live up to our standards of uprightness. Prisons (many for profit) are bursting at the seams, and school expulsions almost mirror this trend of punishing those who suffer most. The fact that Native lives are being lost and justified because they are addicts further mirrors this mentality.

At the end of the day, our relatives are suffering. Their lives do matter; addicts, alcoholics, and gamblers alike. Their lives matter. How dare we sum up their lives with the dismissive title of “addict” when they are so much more than that. Casting any life off and dismissing them gives our society a free pass from examining the real issue – human beings, the human condition, and Native communities especially, who are suffer immensely.

Yes, I do think we should be on high alert, not because of meth, or other drugs, or alcohol, per se, but because we have yet to give enough of our hearts, thoughts, and committed attention to addressing the ever declining mental health of our own people. Their lives matter.

If we even expect to survive as a people, we must create a space to speak compassionately to all of our relatives who struggle, and embrace their addictions just as we would the plight of a cancer patient.

Remove the shame, the guilt, and isolation of relatives who struggle with addictions, depression, and mental health disparities. Let’s show all of them that they matter, too! How dare we even consider doing otherwise?

I’ll leave you with this: who have we become when the lives of those who suffer most ceases to matter?

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth.

Posted on August 18, 2015, in State Security Forces and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I love your heart and mind. God bless you and your message. People of ALL races suffer from addiction. It’s time to STOP treating this as a MORAL issue and instead recognize it as a HEALTH issue.

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