Why Are So Many Indigenous Women Being Wrongly Convicted?

On the morning of Feb. 18, 2022, Cassandra Black Elk, a 26-year-old indigenous woman in South Dakota, woke up to find her three-week-old daughter, Starlight, unresponsive in the bed next to her. It was every mother’s nightmare, but for Black Elk, this was just the beginning. 

Within 10 minutes of arriving at Black Elk’s home, police began questioning her, demanding she tell them how she had harmed her baby. No one had hurt the baby, she told them. She had put her two eldest to bed, fed the youngest one a bottle, and then laid down next to her to sleep. She said when she woke up around six the next morning, Starlight was stiff and cold.

Unsatisfied, the officers took Black Elk to the Bismark police station. The first interrogation there lasted a grueling three hours. Black Elk says police intimidated her, claiming that someone had done something to harm Starlight. They said that there were bruises and injuries on the baby’s body, even though the responding officers weren’t trained medical professionals and her body hadn’t even been examined yet. 

Black Elk didn’t believe them and demanded to see the autopsy report, but she was facing increasing pressure from the police. They threatened to take her other two other children unless she confessed to harming baby Starlight. She was ultimately encouraged by her own attorney to plead guilty to felony child neglect so she could keep her kids. She took the plea and was sentenced to five years in prison. 

Despite her repeated requests, Black Elk still hadn’t seen Starlight’s autopsy. Her attorney ignored her requests to obtain the report on why her baby had died. According to subsequent court documents, he told her, “We’ll deal with that later.” 

In the midst of her grief, Black Elk says that this mistreatment from the authorities and her own attorney made her feel like no one cared she was in pain. “I don’t think it mattered to anybody, how Starlight passed away,” she says. 

It was only after Black Elk was convicted and behind bars that the final report on the baby’s autopsy was released to her. It determined what she had been telling everyone all along: that the cause of death was not abuse or neglect. Starlight had died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

For indigenous women dealing with systemic racism and sexism ingrained in our social and legal system, the effects are often devastating. It’s a crisis I’ve encountered repeatedly in my work as a journalist, as well as a host for Lava for Good’s Wrongful Conviction podcast, which is how I came across  Black Elk’s story. In the United States, indigenous women and girls are murdered at 10 times higher rate than all other ethnicities. A National Institute of Justice Report found that more than four out of five indigenous women have experienced violence. According to the National Congress of American Indians, indigenous women are twice as likely to experience rape or sexual assault. 

Despite being a minority of the overall population, indigenous women are also overrepresented in the incarcerated population in the U.S., and in Canada, they make up almost half of the female prison population. And further, about 71 percent of women exonerated in the last three decades were in prison for crimes that never took place at all — just like Black Elk. 

It’s part of the overall system that has set up generations of indigenous people for mistreatment and struggle. In the U.S. and in Canada, race-based segregation still persists in the form of “Indian reservations.” 

Reservations were established when colonizing governments violently removed indigenous people from their property and forced them to live within the confines of smaller reserved plots of land. But indigenous people were denied the right to own the land they lived on — an asset that can mean money and independence. This monetary disenfranchisement has led to the highest rate of poverty of any racial group (almost twice the national average). 

But this “othering” of indigenous people isn’t limited to reservations. For over a century, native youth were removed from their families and sent to “residential schools.” The goal of these schools was forced assimilation, with children — some as young as four — often stripped of their names, their long hair, their native language, and their culture. 

Many children at these boarding schools experienced physical and sexual abuse. The last of the facilities was shuttered in the late 1990s, and in the years since, mass graves of indigenous children have been discovered near residential school sites in the U.S. and Canada

Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance, sisters from Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada, were both forced to attend residential schools when they were children in the Seventies and Eighties. The psychological scars from their childhood led them to seek relief through drugs and alcohol. For Nerissa, the scars are also physical — she has scoliosis of the spine due to heavy beatings as a child at her residential school.

The Quewezance sisters share Black Elk’s experience of being wrongfully accused and convicted for a crime they say they did not commit. In February of 1993, they were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 70-year-old Anthony Dolff. 

Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance were convicted, despite police being told who the actual assailant was. They had a recorded confession from the women’s cousin, Jason Keshane, who was 14 at the time. He even repeated the story on the witness stand. He said he and the sisters had been hanging out and drinking with Dolff at the older man’s home when Dolff propositioned the two young women. 

An altercation then broke out over some missing money, and Keshane confessed that he had murdered Dolff. His cousins had played no role in the killing, he said. 

Despite police having this recorded statement, they interrogated the sisters under the lie that they were implicated by Keshane as well. According to court documents, the two young girls were held in police cells for five days in violation of a judicial order stating they could only be legally held for 24 hours. They were questioned by a group of all-white, all-male police officers without any attorney present. Despite recording equipment being readily available, police failed to — or chose not to — record any of the interviews. Feeling the heat, the sisters allegedly wrote confessions to the murder of Anthony Dolff. False confessions are the leading cause for wrongful convictions in homicide cases.

“These were big, burly, white men continually bringing them out of the cells and questioning them, putting them back in and questioning them again over, day after day,” said the sister’s post conviction attorney James Lockyer, founding director of Innocence Canada. “The police knew what they wanted. They knew what they were doing. They had to get two girls to say things that somehow tied them into Mr. Dolff’s murder…there’s no doubt there was intimidating tactics used.”

Based on statements the police claimed they gave during these interviews, Odelia and Nerissa were convicted by an all-white jury one year later. Conditioned to succumb to authority, the Quewezance sisters were afraid to testify against the police at their trial.  They were only 21 and 18 years old, respectively, at the time of their conviction. For nearly 30 years, the two maintained their innocence. 

Black Elk also refused to give up fighting for her freedom. With support from two new attorneys and the Great North Innocence Project, Black Elk filed for post-conviction relief citing ineffective counsel and the findings of the autopsy report. A judge ordered her to be released pending a new trial. 

On Jan. 30, 2023, Judge Borgen granted Black Elk’s motion to withdraw her plea and almost ten months later, the State moved to dismiss the charge on Oct. 19, 2023 vacating her conviction. She was released from prison the following day. (In an emailed comment to Rolling Stone, Bismarck police noted that it is simply their job to interrogate suspects, but up to the judicial system to decide how that information is used. “What happens in the end is ultimately up to the criminal justice system. In this case it resulted in the dismissal of charges,” they wrote. Black Elk’s attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

The Quewezance sisters are now out of prison, but their case isn’t over. After nearly 30 years in custody, they were conditionally released in March 2023. In his ruling for their release, the judge cited time spent in residential schools and Gladue factors (challenges faced by indigenous people including discrimination, physical abuse, separation from culture or family, or drug and alcohol abuse).

The sisters are still awaiting the results of a ministerial review of their case.

As stories like these highlight individual losses and tragedies created by systemic racism against indigenous people, there is a push for change. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland made history in 2021 when she became the first Native American to serve as cabinet secretary. That same year, she took immediate action — banning the derogatory word “squaw” from all federally owned lands and creating the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to investigate abuse in former Native American residential schools. 

Representative Sharice Davids, who was one of the first indigenous women elected to the U.S. Congress, championed transformative legislation. In 2020, Davids, Haaland, Tom Cole, and Markwayne Mullin (all members of federally-recognized tribes), introduced and helped pass the Not Invisible Act, a law to increase the focus on missing and murdered indigenous women — cases that often go unsolved.  

Haaland coordinated with Attorney General Merrick Garland to establish the Not Invisible Act Commission, a unit that increases resources for survivors and victim’s families, and combats the epidemic of missing persons, murder and trafficking of American Indian and Alaska Native peoples. 


It is this kind of incremental progress made by advocates and lawmakers that weaves a thread of hope through stories like that of Cassandra Black Elk and the Quewezance sisters. It promises that the journey of these women and countless others, while fraught with pain and injustice, will not be in vain. Their experiences underscore the urgency of systemic reform.

Each individual act of progress, be it a policy change, a legislative victory, or a wrongful conviction overturned, is a step towards a future where tragedies like these are historical footnotes rather than present-day realities. It is incumbent upon us all to be aware of these issues and support legislators and activists dedicated to dismantling the systemic barriers and cultural prejudices that perpetuate such injustices against indigenous people. By doing so, we contribute to a collective effort that seeks not just to prevent similar tragedies, but to build a society that upholds justice and equity for all, especially the most marginalized.