APB: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
A midday panel discussion about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women was in the Cascade Student Union on March 7. Speakers included Marita Growing Thunder representing Save Our Sisters: #MMIW Awareness; Luhui Whitebear, doctoral student of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at OSU and Assistant Director, of NAL Eena Haws; and Deborah Shipman from MMIW USA. They sat in a neat row in front of a projection screen which would later display information about Ashley Heavy Runner Loring, 21, the missing niece of PCC Criminal Justice student, Susie Kicking Woman.
The discussion began with a short introduction and prayer offering by Rachael Black Elk from the Southeast campus Multicultural Center and Women’s Resource Center. She wafted the smoke of a cedar, sweetgrass, and pine pitch smudge over herself and then walked around the room with it so that guests could participate if the chose. She acknowledged the elders present, as well as a local Native who stood to be recognized when prompted by Black Elk. She explained that before any meeting in Native communities formal introductions are customary to pay respect to the host nation for their hospitality.
Native Nations Club Coordinator and host, Renea Perry took the podium next to introduce Deborah Shipman, a woman whose Native name translates to “she who went through the woods after them.” Shipman shared that during her time at Dine’ College in New Mexico, eight Natives she knew were lost to homicide. Eight respectable people, none of whom were involved in problematic groups. One of her friends went missing, and another two were murdered in Gallup, NM.
Despite the passing of decades since these loved ones were taken from their communities, Deborah choked up in fresh somber outrage as she described that the only reason her friend’s murderer was convicted was because 15 people witnessed it. The reality for the vast majority of cases is that they are shrouded in silence and inaction. Inaction on the part of the authorities, silence on the part of the aggrieved loved ones traumatized by their loss and the apathetic response by authorities, silence on the part of the community members who would rather forget this daily reminder of their second-class citizenship.
Once Shipman learned about the human trafficking epidemic occurring on reservations continent-wide, the PSU student decided to start the first American chapter of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA. Her tear soaked testimony rang loud and true for the audience,
“You can’t sit around crying about it. You have to act,” because, she explained, there are often 4-5 jurisdictions that, “fiddle around and take reports,” but don’t actively investigate. She offered two cases to prove her point:
Last summer, three 14-year-olds were missing out of Santa Fe and it took a week and a half for law enforcement to take a report! As it often seems to be the case, the burden of taking a report, let alone investigating, is passed from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Again, last summer a young girl was trafficked out of North Dakota, however she was clever enough to obtain a phone and send a message to her loved ones who were then able to find the address where she was held. They contacted the Pierre Police Department, but were unable to get to her before her captors brought her into Oklahoma. When Shipman became aware of this, she contacted someone she knew in Chickasaw nation who would take the case seriously and could get results.
They and local law enforcement rescued the girl in twenty minutes. For perspective, Shipman and the family reported the girl missing three days prior.
Shipman reported that she was later contacted by Pierre Police Department, and was interrogated for reporting the girl missing outside of their jurisdiction. Her response, “I work for the family and for this little girl.”
To further illustrate the lack of concern shown to Native community members, Shipman reported that every other week a body is found just over the Oregon border in Yakima nation, and yet nothing is done. In one case, a family’s daughter was found and identified 60 days after her disappearance. It took a full year before the family was notified.
“It’s right over the border from Oregon. This ought to offend you personally that this is happening under our noses.”
In fact, according to Luhui Whitebear, the feds don’t pick up 70% of cases for crimes committed on reservations. This is due in part to legal loopholes in laws such as the much-celebrated Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which focuses on domestic and dating violence as well as “criminal violations of protection orders, but forgets external sources of violence.
Crimes specifically excluded from the Act include: crimes committed between two strangers, including sexual assaults; crimes committed by a person who lacks sufficient ties to the tribe, such as living or working on its reservation; and child or elder abuse that does not involve the violation of a protection order.
Moreover, Congress has authorized up to $25 million total for tribal grants in fiscal years 2014 through 2018, however appropriation of the funds has been slow going and has paralyzed any legal actions that could be taken under this legislation. According to Whitebear, part of the problem regarding mobilizing efforts to combat this issue is a lack of reliable statistics. There are no thorough databases that record crimes committed against Natives, there is little inter-agency coordination or information sharing, and there is a needlessly protracted verification process that must be completed in order to qualify the tribal affiliation of victims of crimes.
Groups of individuals from various tribal nations are working to compile crime statistics to create a database dedicated to crimes against Natives, however getting law enforcement to incorporate the information is no easy process. For example, in Hawaii and New Mexico, if a body is found, a certified degree of Indian blood must be presented before the victims will be declared as such, otherwise they are declared “white” by default, which skews existing government crime statistics.
Marita Growing Thunder shared the impetus for the establishment of her organization, Save Our Sisters. Five of her aunts are missing and 3 were murdered. The investigation into one of her aunt’s death yielded nothing more than “overdose” as the official cause of death. She declared,
“I don’t think that an overdose would cause a closed casket funeral where the victim looks like they are basically decapitated.”
The way that Growing Thunder chose to cope with and heal from these losses was to sew one dress per week to dedicate to all missing and murdered women. The University of Montana student begins at 2 AM each morning until she has to go to classes. She shares that since most of the stories “aren’t hers to tell” she never commemorates someone whose family hasn’t requested her efforts. The process involves much research into who the deceased person was so that their dress can stand as a memorial to them as a person rather than as a victim. This “small” act was a way to honor not just the deceased, but the aggrieved family members in need of healing. Growing Thunder tours with the dresses for about a year after which she gives them to the family of the victim. Some have been donated to museums. A pink ribbon dress on display during this discussion was donated for display at PCC.
After receiving permission from the family to share their story, Growing Thunder explained that the skirt she was wearing was dedicated to Norma Medera, a woman who was abducted out of Tacoma, WA. Despite her 25 year absence, her family still searches for her every year on her birthday. Medera’s son never recovered from the loss of his mother and recently committed suicide because of the mounting grief. Medera’s brother, who had heard about Growing Thunder’s work, approached her after a powwow in Montana to commission the skirt.
Most of the materials for the dresses are donated from people around the world especially across North America. The project, which began in August 2016, is in its 2nd year and will be accepting donations for investigations and legal fees for victims’ families. To date, she has completed 150 dresses over 18 months.
Marita Growing Thunder’s finished by thanking the “mothers and sisters” for sharing their stories. She commended the bravery it takes because “It’s a big step, and a hard thing to do is talk about it.”
Renea Perry supported this statement by declaring that,
“The other part of this [effort] is truth in education. Legislation unanimously passed a bill to give 9 tribes funding to develop a history of Native sovereignty. It’s important to get the history corrected. It’s either completely excluded or softened in a way so there’s no motivation for non-Natives to recognize or to support.”
Luhui Whitebear advised the affected people in the crowd to continue to learn and heal. She challenged non-Natives to recognize that this is everyone’s problem, and stressed the importance of “understanding each other’s ways [of healing].”
An elder Native woman in attendance named Celeste stressed the importance of keeping an eye out for recent abductees like Florence Culps of Warm Springs, OR. She was last seen a month ago and is suspected to be in the St Johns area of Portland. Anyone with useful information about Culps’ whereabouts is urged to contact her brother, Lawrence Sequiemphen.
Ashley Heavy Runner Loring was also taken from her home in Browning, MT last June. Anyone with useful information about her whereabouts is urged to contact the Blackfeet Law Enforcement Dispatch Center at (406) 338-4000
This article was updated to correct a name and include organizational affiliations that were omitted. Rachael Black Elk of the Multicultural Center and Women’s Resource Center was referred to as “Rachael Black.” Renea Perry was not identified as the Native Nations Club Coordinator. The Bridge apologizes for the mistake.