RED LAKE, Minn.—On Monday, June 12, a woman who was an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation of North Dakota died while in custody at the Red Lake Detention Center on the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota.

Dwan White Owl, 42, was pronounced dead at the Red Lake Hospital, less than a mile from the detention center.

White Owl and her daughter, Danitra Warpaint, 24, were arrested at Red Lake’s Seven Clans Casino in Thief River Falls on Friday, June 9. The women were booked in the same jail cell and placed in the same holding cell that night.

Warpaint said she had been pleading with jail staff to help her mother — who she said was having cold sweats, migraines, chest and stomach pains, and vomiting — with medical assistance since they were booked in the jail on Friday.

“I was asking for help all day and night,” Warpaint told Native News Online.

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Warpaint said it wasn’t until midnight on Sunday, June 11, that her mother was taken out of the jail cell and transferred to Red Lake Hospital, where she was discharged and returned nearly two hours later, at approximately 2:00 a.m. Red Lake Hospital could not be reached for comment on why White Owl was discharged. 

Upon returning to jail, staff placed White Owl and Warpaint together in a different jail pod. Warpaint stayed up all night with her mother.

After White Owl returned to jail, she and her daugther continued to plead with staff to be returned to the hospital.

“Every time they came, I kept asking for help, but they didn’t want to help,” Warpaint said of jail staff’s routine monitoring of inmates, which usually occurs every 15 minutes. “They kept telling us to wait until the nurse comes in the morning, but when she came in the morning, she didn’t check on her.” 

A Red Lake Tribal citizen who wishes to remain anonymous was in the jail pod with the mother and daughter when White Owl passed away. In an interview with Native News Online, the source said multiple women were pleading with jail staff to take White Owl back to the hospital.

“In the morning, during cell cleaning, between 9 and 10 a.m., jail correctional officers brought a cleaning cart to our pod,”  she said. “Everyone cleaned while Dwan was lying by the pod door on a mat while her daughter was lying with her. By the time our cleaning time was done, nearly 15 minutes, one of us noticed she wasn’t breathing.” 

According to Warpaint, on Monday, June 12, at 11:15 a.m., jail staff came to check on White Owl — who was unconscious — and began administering CPR.

“The CO [correctional officer] came in and tried to give her CPR," the anonymous source confirmed. “ But they didn't even know how. They didn't even lay her fully on her back while doing CPR, and it took them about 10 minutes to even get an airbag around her mouth. The nurse couldn't even hold the airbag in her mouth properly from how badly she was shaking. There was no urgency whatsoever in the EMTs, the COs, or the nurse. It's like they weren't trained for that.”

After the staff saw that CPR was unsuccessful, they stopped CPR, and shortly after, medical staff transported White Owl to the hospital. 

Warpaint was also transported separately to the hospital and was later told by a doctor at the Red Lake Hospital that her mother was deceased. No known reason for her death was given, and additional details on the circumstances of her death have not been released. 

Native News Online reached out to the Nation and the Detention Center and left multiple voicemail messages, but neither responded before this story's publication.

Warpaint was released from the Red Lake Detention Center on Wednesday, June 14, on her own recognizance.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said in an email to Native News Online that they are aware of the situation around White Owl’s death, but did not provide additional information as the investigation is ongoing. 

“There is no public information available, and we cannot comment any further at this time,” Diana Freedman, a spokesperson for the Minneapolis FBI field office, wrote in an email to Native News Online

White Owl’s family is frustrated at the lack of communication from law enforcement.

“It’s been a week, and no one has informed our family of any details,” Shelly Belgarde, sister of Dwan White Owl, said. 

Because Red Lake is exempt from Public Law 280 (PL280), the federal government, and not the state or Tribe, is investigating the death of White Owl. PL280 was passed in 1953, giving six states — including Minnesota — criminal jurisdiction of major felony crimes on Indian lands. Because Red Lake is a “closed” reservation, and non-members do not have land on the reservation, the law does not apply, and Red Lake Nation and the federal government have jurisdiction over crimes and deaths on the reservation. 

The Red Lake Detention Center is regulated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and is subject to federal laws, policies, and mandates. According to the jail’s website, inspections of the jail are conducted annually to ensure that the facility is compliant with overcrowding; properly staffed and staff is adequately trained; and meets safety standards set and regulated by the federal government. 

According to a report by NPR in 2021, nearly 28% of BIA correctional officers and staff who spend the majority of their time supervising inmates had not completed training to be certified in first aid, suicide prevention, and handling medical emergencies. A report published by the U.S. Department of Justice in May 2023 revealed that four persons died while in custody in tribal jails, or detention centers, 12 months before June 30, 2022, three of them by suicide. 

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 80 detention centers operating in Indian Country in 2022. Not all federally recognized tribes have detention centers. 

Collecting data in Indian Country has had challenges for decades, and American Indians are often excluded from incarceration rates. There are many reasons given for disparities in data, but when data is available for American Indian people, it often shows higher numbers of involvement with the criminal justice system. 

Native Americans are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, American Indians represent more than 9% of the state prison population but comprise just more than 1% of the state’s population. 20% of women in the state’s prison system are American Indian.

In Minnesota, the deaths of Indigenous prisoners have had a dark past in the state. In 1862, the largest mass execution of federal prisoners occurred on Dec. 26, after President Abraham Lincoln issued a list of 39 men from the Dakota tribe to be hanged in Mankato. After the hanging was carried out, it was discovered that two men were accidentally hanged; one was a white man that was adopted at an early age by the tribe. 

Deaths from service calls and law enforcement encounter reveal that in Minnesota, American Indians are 5.7 times more likely than whites to be involved in a fatal encounter with law enforcement as of Dec. 30, 2022. The study mentioned that it did not include deaths in correctional facilities, though. 

Last week, the U.S. DOJ released results from a two-year investigation revealing that the Minneapolis Police Department unlawfully discriminated against Native American people, including the use of force after a traffic stop.  

In Beltrami County, where the Red Lake Indian Reservation is located, inmate deaths are usually among the highest in the state, along with Hennepin County in Minneapolis. 

White Owl’s family has not heard from authorities on when they can retrieve the body for burial. The family organized a GoFundMe to assist with hiring an attorney to hold officials accountable. 

“Dwan was a beautiful, kind-hearted woman,” said White Owl’s sister, Shelly Belgarde. “She always brought joy and happiness to people who knew her. She had a laugh and smile that would light up any room. Humor was her medicine and gift to the world. Her loss is one that reaches many loved ones far and wide. Dwan’s spirit will forever live on in the hearts of everyone who knew her.”

This is a developing story. 

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About The Author
Author: Darren ThompsonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a staff reporter for Native News Online who is based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, Powwows.com and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.