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Carina Dominguez
Indian Country Today

Since first contact Indigenous people have faced violence from settlers. The violence has spanned centuries and is even more insidious and complex now.

When Gabby Petito went missing her homicide investigation was covered by mainstream media, advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous people said it was yet another example of deep-seated racism.

The case also brought a resurgence of interest in the missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis and an opportunity for families and advocates to spread the word on missing loved ones.

However, the issue is even more complex when considering children and adults who have been, and continue to be, unjustly ripped away from tribal communities.

Advocates are working to shed light on all cases, including those who have been wrapped up in the legal system and stripped of their Indigenous identity.

These cases are rarely brought into the discussion about missing Indigenous people.

Unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women

While the mainstream media coverage of Petito, a White woman killed by strangulation while on a cross-country road trip with her fiance, was ramping up there were developments in several cases involving Indigenous women that didn’t receive national interest.

On Sept. 3, Reatha May Finkbonner, Lummi, was reported missing in Las Vegas and was found alive 20 days later. On Sept. 16, a person of interest was arrested in connection to the murder of Faith Hedgepeth, Haliwa-Saponi, after an investigation that was over a decade long.

But too many Indigenous cases remain unsolved, perpetrators remain at large, and too many missing relatives have not been found.

In a study titled Homicide and Indigenous People in North America: A structural analysis, the authors say the homicide rate of Indigenous people is a manifestation of state sanctioned violence.

The study, published in the Aggression and Violent Behavior Journal in 2019, states the “crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is tied to the structural conditions...that upend the lives of Indigenous peoples, rendering them disposable, unworthy, precarious, and even responsibilize to violent victimization and homicide experienced at the individual level.”

Banners hoisted at the Rosebud Indian Reservation bring attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and to recognize the #MMIWBIKERUNUSA2021. The relay went through Rosebud on Sept. 4-5, 2021, on the way to Washington, D.C. (Photo by Vi Waln for Indian Country Today)

Violence against women is an international problem and the impacts on Indigenous women are staggering.

Conservative estimates by the World Health Organization suggest 35 percent of all murders of women globally are committed by an intimate partner, in comparison only 5 percent of all murders of men are committed by intimate partners.

And the WHO evidence suggests women who kill their intimate partners were often acting in self-defense following ongoing violence and intimidation.

One study found the Indigenous homicide rate in the U.S. and Canada is the highest of any racial group in either country.

The CDC reported homicide is the fourth leading cause of death for females 19 and younger and the fifth leading cause of death for women 20 to 44.

Nationwide, an average of three women are killed daily by a current or former intimate partner, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

And for Indigenous women the homicide rate is 10 times higher than it is for White women, according to the Department of Justice.

After the highly-publicized murder of Petito advocates are wondering why all missing person cases are not met with the same level of attention and urgency.

On Nov. 25, 2020, Mary Johnson, 40, was last seen walking to a friend’s house on the Tulalip tribal lands in Washington state.

On June 15, Ella Mae Begay, 62, was reported missing from her home in one of the most remote areas of the Navajo Nation.

On Aug. 6, Landria Tsosie, Navajo, 30, was reported missing out of Phoenix. She was last seen in a silver Hyundai Elantra.

Nicole Wagon, Northern Arapaho, lost two of her daughters, Jocelyn Watt and Jade Wagon, a year apart and she says both cases remain unsolved.

The sisters from Wyoming didn’t receive nearly the same amount of media attention Petito did and Nicole Wagon believes it would’ve made a drastic difference in both cases.

In 2019, Watt, 30, and her boyfriend were found shot to death in their home.

A year later, Jade Wagon, 23, was reported missing by her mom after she didn’t return home. Weeks later Jade was found dead in a field.

Law enforcement said she died from hypothermia and noted drugs were in her system but Nicole believes Jade didn’t end up in the field alone and suspects foul play. She believes the investigation was insufficient and is still looking for answers.

Nicole called Petito’s case a blessing in disguise, saying it increased the visibility of her daughters’ cases and other missing relatives’ cases in Wyoming.

Contrasts between Petito case and MMIP cases

Resources were mobilized quickly to locate Petito. Not Our Native Daughters Director Lynette Grey Bull argues that would not have been the case if Petito was an Indigenous woman.

“They created the urgency,” Grey Bull said. “Everybody was on board but I can honestly say that if that was a Native American woman that went missing in the Grand Teton region we wouldn't have received those same efforts. And, I, I hope one day, I don't ever have to say that.”

Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland addressed Petito’s case saying her heart goes out to her family and that she also grieves with the many Indigenous families who have endured similar heartache “for the last 500 years,” adding “it’s my job to lift up this issue as best I can.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs announced a new website in December that it says can be a tool to bring attention to unresolved Indigenous cases.

The spotlight on Petito’s case brought much-needed national attention to missing and murdered Indigenous people in Wyoming, the least populated state and home to two federally recognized tribes.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous People statewide report was widely cited in national publications, and that’s important because Wyoming has just half a million people across 98,000 square miles of rugged terrain.

The state’s most cited statistic is the reported 710 Indigenous people who went missing in the state between 2011 and 2020. Of that, 85 percent were children and 57 percent were female.

Although there are only two federally recognized tribes in Wyoming there are missing Indigenous people in 22 of the 23 counties.

Grey Bull, a Democrat who ran for Congress in the heavily conservative state last year, pushed for the MMIP task force and study.

She says not a single Indigenous case out of Wyoming received nationwide media attention prior to Petito’s case and a low percentage barely received statewide coverage.

“If we don't have blonde hair and blue eyes we are not primetime material. We are not the focus of the six o'clock news or the morning news or even national news,” Grey Bull said.

“As a Native person, it takes a whole lot of work to get cases from our communities, our tribal communities to make it out even to just a local, statewide six o'clock evening news slot and it shouldn't have to be that way. It shouldn't have to take so much effort to get Indigenous stories out in the public.”

And when the stories did get media coverage there were harmful depictions.

According to the report, White women were portrayed in a positive light, with work of school credentials highlighted, while Indigenous women were portrayed in a harsh light that leaned heavily on stereotypes.

“I'm not here to shame law enforcement. I'm not here to shame even media coverage, I'm here to try to change that,” Grey Bull said. “How can we work together to change that? Cause collectively it can be changed and our portrayal of who we are as Indigenous people can absolutely be changed.”

The media coverage issue goes beyond Wyoming’s borders. Kiana Klomp was missing in Idaho for 18 months before any news articles were written about her, the Guardian reported.

Her mom, Teri Deschene, Tlingit, said the 17 year old ran away from home and was staying with friends, and ended up at a man’s house who Deschene described as a predator. She feels helpless, ignored and all she has now are the memories of Kiana, who loved skateboarding.

Joseph Petito urged the media to cover all missing people with the same energy they gave his daughter Gabby.

“I want to ask everyone to help all the people that are missing and need help. It’s on all of you, everyone that’s in this room to do that,” Petito said while pointing to reporters and cameras in front of him. “If you don’t do that for other people that are missing, that’s a shame, because it’s not just Gabby that deserves it.”

The family announced the Gabby Petito Foundation which will help others locate their missing loved ones. The foundation hopes to fill in gaps that exist when trying to locate missing people.

Lissa Yellowbird-Chase is the founder of Sahnish Scouts, a citizen-led organization dedicated to searching for missing Indigenous people. She hopes to form an allyship with Petito’s family.

“It felt to me like that momentum was going to bring results and it did and that's a good feeling and that's what we need to capture for all of the missing people,” Yellowbird-Chase said about the search for Petito.

Yellowbird-Chase was upset by the disrespect she saw online, saying people reduced Petito to another “White girl”, “uttering disrespect for a domestic abuse victim.”

“She's gone. How are we going to make allies with a family like that when we've got people that are spewing disrespect online,” Yellowbird-Chase said. “That White girl was more than just a White girl. She was a daughter, she was a sister and her potential motherhood has been taken from her.”

Wagon, Yellowbird-Chase and Grey Bull all welcomed the increased visibility Petito’s case brought to missing Indigenous people and hope for more parity in responses to MMIP cases.

“Let's move forward and make sure that when an Indigenous person goes missing or found murdered that we have the same efforts that Petito received and how can anybody say ‘no’ to that is my question,” Grey Bull said.

Dissecting responses from law enforcement, media, public

Four Indigenous organizations, focused on ending violence, issued a joint statement that starts with condolences to Petito’s family but points to many issues.

“None of our relatives to date have received much, if any, attention from the news media, concentrated efforts by law enforcement departments or any outpouring of financial contributions from ordinary citizens...The contrast we are witnessing regarding this particular case is heartbreaking to the many Indigenous families and communities dealing with the daily pain of losing their loved ones. The contrast sends the message that society has little regard for Indigenous lives.”

Despite Petito going missing in a remote area of the country, authorities were able to piece together her whereabouts, largely due to the media spotlight and the tips from the public that poured in.

When it comes to the epidemic of MMIP jurisdiction is often cited as an issue impeding investigations. When crimes occur on tribal lands, which are federal lands, the BIA and FBI get involved.

The cross-jurisdictional issues didn’t appear to be a problem for authorities trying to locate Petito. She was reported missing in the Grand Teton National Park, which is federal land, and prompted the FBI’s involvement.

But the level of urgency the FBI gave her case was not comparable to what Indigenous people receive.

The FBI and BIA declined to comment to Indian Country Today on the matter.

Cara Chambers with the Wyoming Division of Victim Services is also concerned about the differences in responses.

“Again, not to diminish Gabby and her case but that's the phrase that we keep throwing around the ‘missing White woman syndrome.’ I mean, somehow that just has a life of its own. It has had a 24 hour news cycle and because of it we found her in nine days from when she was reported missing,” Chambers said.

Longtime PBS News anchor Gwen Ifill coined the phrase “Missing White Woman Syndrome” to describe the widespread fascination with such cases.

The attention to Petito’s case brought urgency and resources were quickly mobilized to find her.

Dissecting media coverage sheds light on the life or death nature of implicit biases in newsrooms.

For Indigenous people, there’s a lack of coverage and if there is any coverage at all it’s disparaging. That influences public perception, the value placed on an individual’s life and the level of urgency law enforcement respond with.

“The White victims seem to have more positive characterization,” Chambers said. “And then you had these tribal victims, bodies. And I say bodies intentionally because they were reduced to a body and a crime, versus a person and a loved one in a family and that was a real shame.”

The Native American Journalists Association issued a survey to newsrooms in 2018 to gauge newsroom diversity.

It found that Indigenous people make up just .38 percent of employees in newsrooms.

Among newsroom leaders Indigenous people comprised .49 percent, according to the survey.

Many barriers contribute to the low percentages. For example, early career journalists in small markets can make a starting income that ranges from $20,000 to $30,000 a year, more or less, making some jobs more easily accessible to those from certain socioeconomic backgrounds.

The lack of proper media representation perpetuates damaging myths and stereotypes, according to Illuminative, a nonprofit initiative led by Indigenous people and designed to increase the visibility of Indigenous people.

Yellowbird-Chase pointed out the public’s implicit bias and how that can affect solving cases. She says examples can be found online under photos of missing Indigenous people.

“Was that person an alcoholic, oh, well, we don't need to pay attention to them. Were they a sex worker? Were they a drug addict? Were they homeless? Did they have kids out of wedlock? Do they have a criminal history?,” Yellowbird-Chase said. “I've seen trolls, you know, we've posted missing persons posters and I've seen trolls come and right away they'll screenshot a criminal record and they give you every reason not to look for them.”

She said the public played a role in locating Petito and this same momentum needs to be applied to MMIP.

“It makes you wonder on a bigger level, like as a society, what responsibility do we have in that? And I was really quite touched at how many people responded. There were people that responded to the actual physical abuse that they witnessed. There were people that responded to knowing that the van was at certain places at certain times. The public really are the ones that practice due diligence,” Yellowbird-Chase said.

One MMIP case that did gain nationwide attention only received headlines because of the sheer brutality of the murder.

Savanna Lafontaine-Greywind, Spirit Lake Nation, was found murdered and duct taped in plastic in the Red River - between North Dakota and Minnesota in 2017. 

The 22 year old was eight months pregnant when her neighbor lured her into an upstairs apartment and cut her baby from her womb. The baby survived the attack, and lives with her father, but Lafontaine-Greywind did not.

The shocking nature of her story grabbed headlines and it also brought about a bill named after her, the nation’s first legislative action aimed at increasing coordination among federal, state and tribal law enforcement.

Several news outlets reported Lafontaine-Greywind’s family did not feel like law enforcement acted with urgency.

Although there was an urgent response to Petito’s case the handling of her case was far from perfect.

Petito’s case highlights systemic issues

Police responded to a domestic violence call involving Petito and her alleged abuser weeks before she was found strangled to death.

In the Moab, Utah, police body cam footage that was released to the public, male officers can be heard blaming Petito for the violence even after a witness reported a male hitting a female.

“It just seemed to me that that officer was really fishing, really fishing, to blame the female. And I thought that was a little concerning,” Yellowbird-Chase said. “How would he know the intention of that scratch? Was it a defensive scratch? Was it her? Because the call didn't come in that she was the one doing the harm. It was him.”

When a witness called police, he reported a “gentleman” slapping a female before both hopped into a van and drove off, then officers pulled them over and quickly sided with the male - the person who is now the number one suspect in her homicide investigation, whose remains were allegedly found in Florida.

The abuser can be seen in the body cam footage laughing and smiling while talking to police while Petito can be seen crying throughout the police interaction which was over an hour long.

At one point he even confesses Petito might have concerns about him, saying he hoped she didn’t have “too many complaints.”

Although federal law prohibits discriminatory enforcement of the law, gender-biased policing is a widespread issue, according to the ACLU, which conducted a survey that revealed 88 percent believe police “sometimes” or “often” do not believe victims or blame victims for the violence.

The alleged abuser was labeled the domestic violence victim in the case, despite the signs of abuse Petito displayed and the 911 call from the witness saying the female was being slapped.

Police connected him with a domestic violence shelter which booked him a hotel, free of cost to him. The shelter receives resources from the Violence Against Women Act, funds that are meant for battered women.

Petito’s case is yet another example of the need for structural change. The ACLU recommends regular, trauma-informed training for officers about implicit biases and effective police responses to sexual assault and domestic violence crimes.

Other recommendations include having systems of accountability in place to ensure officers follow policies and are both promoted and penalized according to performance.

And that would include incidences of, and responses to, domestic violence and sexual assaults committed by police officers because right now it’s not consistently tracked.

According to the ACLU, a report found sexual misconduct was the second most reported form of police misconduct.

Gender-biased policing is even more complicated when it intersects with racially-biased policing.

That kind of institutional violence has deep roots in colonialism. Ingrained biases make the Indigenous missing person issue even more complex when considering the ongoing family separations and forced assimilations.

Indigenous people legally, unjustly separated from tribal communities

Too many times Indigenous people are unjustly ripped from their tribal communities. They are alive, many times families know exactly where they are, but the family is separated and it’s considered legal.

It could be due to over-policing, family courts favoring non-Indigenous parents or social service agencies disproportionately removing Indigenous children from their communities.

People march to call for justice for missing and murdered indigenous women Friday, June 14, 2019, at the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma in Concho, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Family separations and implicit biases are not mutually exclusive. There’s a myriad of cases, each uniquely different, but they all share the same imperialist theme.

“We don't even have a number for the kids that are missing,” Yellowbird-Chase said about the small bodies that have been unearthed at boarding schools.

Oftentimes people associate the separation, assimilation and trauma children endured at boarding schools as something that only occurred historically. But forced assimilation is ongoing.

Indigenous children are still being systematically taken from their tribal communities and forcefully assimilated.

“We're talking about boarding schools. And that's just the count of the dead children, the murdered children,” Yellowbird-Chase said about the growing number of children found buried at boarding schools.

“What about the children that we've lost to the foster cares? What about the ones that have been rinsed out of their Indianness through foster care, institutionalization, adoption, the great swoop of all these kids? They've literally washed their Indianness from them. Those kids are lost as well.”

Canadian author Patrick Johnston coined the phrase “sixties scoop” in his book, “Native Children and the Welfare System.” He notes in 1950 less than one percent of children in Canada’s welfare system were Indigneous but they accounted for one third by the mid-60s.

Since Yellowbird-Chase built a reputation helping families locate missing loved ones, many people have reached out to her requesting her help locating their Indigenous families, after receiving results from ancestry DNA tests.

Although the tests don’t prove Indigenous ancestry or tribal affiliations she says it speaks to the multi-generational scope of the issue.

“That goes to show you that these people have been displaced. They are the living versions of being stripped of your identity, of your culture, of who you are inside. And when we have this much trauma that we carry, they don't even know where, where to put that,” Yellowbird-Chase said.

The alive and missing are too often overlooked. Women flee abusers with their children to save their lives, with hopes of not becoming another MMIP statistic, and are treated as criminals in the legal system. Rarely are they brought up in MMIP discussions.

One Native advocate talked about her own personal custody case. The non-Native parent and judge pushed the narrative that she was an "unfit" mother and the father was awarded custody.

Shortly after, it was discovered that the children were living with the father in a motel and had been abused by him. Despite the fact that the maternal grandmother, who lived on tribal lands, was a social worker they were temporarily placed in foster care.

It took years for the mother to gain full-custody of her children in the state of Washington.

Today, the data shows Native American children in Washington are three times more likely to be placed in out of home care than White children. And 2016 data shows there were less than 100 Native foster homes.

And Native youth are disproportionately affected throughout the juvenile justice system, more than any other group. They suffer the two most severe punishments, out-of-home placements and a transfer to the adult system.

According to a Lakota People’s Law Project report, Native youth make up approximately one percent of the U.S. population but 70 percent of the youth committed to Federal Bureau Prisons.

The CDC found children who are transferred to the adult criminal justice system have a 39 percent higher recidivism rate, which contributes towards higher arrest and incarceration rates for adults.

The number of Native men confined in jail is four times the national average. Native women are in prison at six times the rate of White women, according to the report.

“We are still fighting a system that does not work for us, a system that is not built to protect us,” Grey Bull said.

Instances of clemency have addressed the issue on a micro-level but are rare. Advocates say there’s a need for a new approach, one that’s more holistic.

Maddesyn George killed a man in self-defense

Maddesyn George, Colville, shot a man who was reaching for her through a car window one day after he raped her at gunpoint and a federal court sentenced her to six and a half years.

Her case stands in stark contrast to Kyle Rittenhouse’s case. He killed two men and was aquitted of murder.

The legal system did little to question his claims of self-defense despite the fact that he drove across state lines to confront Black Lives Matter protesters.

George was arrested for killing him last July and was held in the tribal jail until November when she was indicted in federal court and taken to Spokane.

“She's been separated from her family since then,” her attorney Steve Graham said. George has a child who was 4 months old at the time the incident occurred.

She was afraid of the non-Native man and said she didn’t feel safe to leave until he fell asleep.

She took his gun, cash and drugs. The next day he was walking around tribal lands with a shotgun looking for her when he found her sitting in a friend's car. He reached in and hit her and she shot him defending herself.

“It seemed like the investigation against her was biased. It seemed like they didn't investigate the sexual assault that was committed against her at all. They didn't intend to preserve or document any of the evidence that was collected and it was a big frustration to her and her family,” Graham said.

She plead guilty to drug charges but Graham says the case revolves around sexual assault and self-defense. Because the crime occurred on tribal land, she was prosecuted in federal court, under the Major Crimes Act.

Native Americans are confined to federal prisons at 38 percent above the national average, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Graham says he has practiced law in the Colville tribal court since 1999.

“It seems there that the judges really try to keep families together at all costs. Unfortunately under the federal sentencing guidelines, there's not as much consideration for keeping the families together and that's unfortunate,” Graham said.

The Indigenous overrepresentation in jail cells perpetuates the generational trauma of family separation.

The problem is intensified and has ripple effects in communities when mothers are kept away from their babies. Separating mothers from infants goes against the recommendations of medical professionals and has negative impacts on infant health.

Dennis Willard, of Bellevue, Wash., carries a sign that reads "Where Is She" as he marches in support of missing and murdered indigenous women during a rally to mark Indigenous Peoples' Day in downtown Seattle, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. The observance of the day was made official by the Seattle City Council in 2014, and it takes place annually on the federal holiday of Columbus Day. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Incarceration and homicide statistics show the disproportionate impacts on Indigenous communities.

“The problem that we face in Indian Country has been an ongoing thing. I would even say even from the first set of settlers and colonization, this is something that we've been facing and we're still fighting it to this day,” Grey Bull said.

Yellowbird-Chase says it’s an ongoing fight to raise our children in Indigenous ways. The loss of Indigenous lives and the erasure of the Indigenous experience are rarely considered state sanctioned killings.

Still ‘clawing back’ Indigenous identity

The rates of removal for Indigenos children were higher prior to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978.

The bill ensures Indigenous children maintain connections to their cultures by giving preference to immediate family members, adoptive families who are Indigenous and from each child’s respective tribe, or any Indigenous family.

But the legislation is currently being challenged by Texas, Louisiana and Indiana and seven individuals.

Before 1978, 25 to 35 percent of all Indigenous children were taken from their parents and

85 percent of children were placed outside of their families and communities even when relatives were available and willing to adopt them, according to data compiled by Illuminative.

Lissa Yellowbird-Chase helps families search for their missing loved ones because she's been impacted by the epidemic herself, on more than one occasion.

“To anybody who's either looking, or have lost a family member, my heart is with you. My prayers are with you,” Yellowbird-Chase said.

Her nephew Paul YellowBird McCormack was 37 when he was finally able to reconnect with the Indigenous half of his biological family.

His biological mother is White and his biological father was from the MHA Nation in North Dakota.

He was born before the Indian Child Welfare Act became federal law. At 6-weeks old, in 1976, he was adopted by a White family.

In 1980, his adoptive parents received a letter from the Social Service Board of North Dakota stating his birth father Chuck YellowBird “was informed of the birth of his son several years ago” and had contacted the agency hoping to provide information about “his Indian heritage” to his son.

The letter goes on to say Chuck wanted to be “reassured that the child is in a ‘good’ adoptive home.”

Chuck had spent years trying to locate Paul, which was difficult because he was searching for him under the name he was given at birth, Richard. Chuck dealt with anxiety and alcoholism.

The night before Chuck claimed his life in 2011 he talked to his niece for hours and expressed deep regret for never having found his son.

When Paul first attempted to find his biological parents the case worker said his mother didn’t want to have contact. When he asked about his father they said paternity had not been established.

He asked about the letter they received from the agency when he was a toddler and the case worker said it didn’t exist and said he should let it go.

He tried searching the internet over the years but using the wrong information his mother had provided.

Then in 2013 Paul was involved in a discrimination complaint with his work and was looking for documentation proving his Native ancestry.

Paul contacted the agency again requesting a copy of the letter and got it the second time around. To his surprise, the person helping him casually mentioned paternity had been established. She helped Paul search for his MHA Nation family.

Now, Paul knows both sides of his biological family but to this day he has never had a conversation with his biological parents. Chuck died before they could meet and his biological mother refuses to speak to him.

After all his experience with the legal system over the years, he says the system has changed but it has not improved.

He feels like he missed out on his culture, especially because Indigenous communities prioritize family and community. He said coming from the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” part of the Midwest where he grew up, to his MHA relatives felt natural and welcoming.

Paul said when he met his Indigenous family members for the first time it felt like they had known each other forever but just hadn’t seen each other in a long time.

But, he says, at 45 he still feels like he’s trying to claw back his identity.

StrongHearts Native Helpline: 1-844-762-8483, Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Do you have a relative who has been kept away from your tribal community? Do you have a relative who has been taken through legal means? Please email your story to CarinaDominguez@indiancountrytoday.com with the subject: MISSING AND ALIVE.

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