by Amanda Ong
In July of 2020, Maddesyn George, a 27-year-old Native mother and member of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Eastern Washington, was raped by a white man named Kristopher Graber. George had considered Graber a friend, but after refusing to let her leave his home, he allegedly assaulted her while taunting her with a gun. George fled the scene with Graber’s gun, a sugar-packet amount of methamphetamine, and some of his other possessions. The next morning, Graber came looking for George on the Colville Reservation in northeastern Washington. In front of several witnesses, Graber then attacked George. Terrified, she shot him with his gun. Graber died instantly.
This Wednesday, Nov. 17, is George’s sentencing hearing. She is being charged with voluntary manslaughter and drug possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. She will be heard by the U.S. District Court in Spokane. Because the shooting occurred on a reservation and falls under the Major Crimes Act, a law that dictates that certain crimes committed by Native people on Native territory fall under federal jurisdiction, George is being prosecuted on the federal level by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington.
According to George’s attorney, Steve Graham, George has already accepted a plea deal to avoid up to 45 years in prison. However, she still faces up to 17 years in federal prison in California, over 1,000 miles away from her 20-month-old daughter, Shynne. This potential sentence is despite federal advisory guidelines suggesting less than 11 years.
“She’s a very strong person, she doesn’t let people walk over her,” George’s mother, Jody George, said in an interview with the Emerald. “She knows you got to stick up for yourself, nobody else is gonna do it. And I know my mom raised me that way. And we’ve got all sisters and my grandma had all sisters and it’s a strong family of women. That is what we’ve come from, and she’s all about family.”
She went on to defend Maddesyn’s actions and alleged that Graber had previously abused Maddesyn’s older sister and stolen from their family. But above all things, Jody spoke of Maddesyn’s kindness.
Jody emphasized her daughter’s strength and resilience, her consistent honesty, and her compassion. Jody said Maddesyn fed “half of the town” when the community had little to eat. Jody mentioned Maddesyn also took in local kids, all while caring for her own young daughter.
Since last July, Maddesyn’s case has become a nationwide campaign emblematic of the long history of the murder, rape, and erasure of Native women. Native women face the highest rates of sexual violence in the United States at double the national average. “We have a lot of deaths, women that have been killed and murdered and are still unsolved,” Jody said during the interview. “People like Graber get out on bail, but he was running around still selling drugs, still carrying guns, while Native women are dying.”
Despite immediately providing the police with a detailed account of the rape and the following events, Maddesyn was not provided a rape kit and was jailed without an attorney present. Graham said that prior to Graber’s death, Maddesyn had reported to friends that she had been assaulted by him. “A person can’t listen to [Maddesyn’s] hour-long interview, as she recounts the event, without knowing in your heart that everything she says is real. So I think the prosecutors are kind of tone-deaf, and I’m not sure why they’re being so obstinate on this,” Graham said in an interview with the Emerald.
There are hundreds of cases like Maddesyn’s across the country, with little done to protect Native women in rural locales. Urban locations don’t see much improvement. In Seattle, Native people make up 0.9% of the population. Yet, they make up 6% of the homeless population and a staggering 94% of Native women in Seattle have reported being raped in their lifetime, with 53% of them also reporting homelessness at the time. Furthermore, most of the Native population of Seattle lives here in South Seattle.
The prosecution has gone so far as to deny that Maddesyn was raped at all. “I and her family have been told time and time again, ‘She’s lying, she’s lying, she’s lying,’ when it’s clear as day that this happened,” Graham said. Graham added that the police took photographs of Maddesyn that suggested she didn’t have bruising but neglected to include that Graber had brandished and waved a firearm at Maddesyn to threaten her during the assault.
Experts in sexual assault, including the YWCA Spokane, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, Sovereign Bodies, a coalition of academics, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, have also written letters to the judge and U.S. attorney, questioning the prosecution’s tactics and judgment of Maddesyn’s assault.
The prosecution further plans to leverage Maddesyn’s past of drug use against her, having altered the original charge of manslaughter to add drug possession with intent to distribute, despite the fact that the drugs were taken from Graber. The drug charges are actually more serious than the manslaughter charge and contribute to the majority of Maddesyn’s potential sentence time.
Mox Alvarnez, a member of the campaign to free Maddesyn, told the Emerald, “We are not going to allow the notion that Maddesyn somehow does not have a right to bodily autonomy if she has a relationship with substances or [a] criminal record or defended herself.” Jody further emphasized that Maddesyn had been clean since the birth of her daughter and had been hoping to find a clean start by buying a home and focusing on raising her daughter.
The reality of the threat posed to Native women is clear, and to her supporters, she was saving her own life. “She killed him in self-defense, and if she wouldn’t have done that, I would probably be planning her funeral,” Jody said.
“I think about how Maddesyn’s not in our database as someone who was missing or murdered. She’s not there today because she survived,” Alvarnez echoed. “And now the State seeks to disappear her and remove her anyway, producing the exact same outcome that imperial racist violence intended to produce anyway.”
After Maddesyn shot Graber, she told her mother that she could only think of needing to stay alive for her own daughter. Jody says that Maddesyn has told her she hopes to receive as low of a sentence as possible so that she can raise her daughter and go back to school or find work. “She goes, ‘Well Mom, we can still build our own white picket fence, our own home,’” Jody said.
The Campaign to Free Maddesyn George asks that the people of the Pacific Northwest sign their petition, endorse the campaign through their organization, contribute to grassroots fundraising, engage in Twitter storms with #FreeMaddesyn, and attend weekly #FreeMaddesynMondays.
For more information about the campaign, people can view a virtual press conference featuring nationally recognized Native activists and scholars on Vimeo. Community organizations included in the campaign, such as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Washington, API Chaya, Collective Justice, Native Women’s Collective, and Sovereign Bodies Institute, also provide resources on violence and assault towards Native women.
Regardless of the results of the hearing, the campaign plans to fight for Maddesyn’s freedom and hopes the public will continue to fight with them. “We are very ready to continue to do what we have to do to reunite Maddesyn with her family as soon as possible,” Alvarnez said. “The sentencing will not be the end of any fight.”
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: Maddesyn George with her mother, Jody George. Photo courtesy of Campaign to Free Maddesyn George.
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