Montana marchers demand justice and safety for Indigenous women
“You’ll have to excuse me, my wound is fresh,” a tearful Northern Cheyenne woman, Paula Castro, told the crowd of four hundred who’d just completed the mile-long Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman’s March in Billings, Montana.
A sea of red-clad Native march participants and allies carried signs during the march from the Native American Achievement Center at Montana State University Billings to downtown at the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn, with pictures and names of sisters, best friends, moms, daughters, cousins, and loved ones.
During the march, they chanted slogans such as, “Silent no more!” and “No more stolen sisters!” while giving continuous war cries to honor and remember Indigenous women and girls that have been lost.
Among them was Castro’s 14-year-old daughter Henny Scott, found dead on December 28 by a volunteer search party after being reported missing for three weeks.
December 7 was the last time Castro said she saw Henny, a basketball player who wanted to be a doctor. “I never thought on that day, that it would be the last time I would ever hear my daughter’s voice, the last day anyone would know where she was — or so they say,” Castro said.
“We posted about her on Facebook on the 9th and we asked around town and asked if anyone had seen her — no had seen her. Her birthday came and went, and that’s when we knew something was wrong,” Castro said. “There was no sign of my daughter.”
She scoured her eastern Montana reservation and across the state, putting up missing posters everywhere. “It’s not like I was sitting at home waiting for the law to do it for me,” said Castro to the crowd.
Castro says she filed a report on the adjacent Crow Indian Reservation. “Then I found out her Missing Person’s report sat on somebody’s desk because they were on Christmas vacation, so nobody was looking for her in Crow,” she said. “Christmas came and went, and there was no sign of my daughter.”
After the volunteer search party found Henny Castro says the findings were questionable, “They said she died from hypothermia, but it was warm,” Castro said. “What we need is more warriors to help with this process, someone who’s going to bridge the gap, someone who is going to take us seriously.”
Even after her daughter was found, Castro says she was kept in the dark about circumstances regarding the alleged cause of death. “How I found out my daughter died from hypothermia was from the newspaper,” she said. “Nobody came and told me, nobody came and called me, nobody reached out to me.”
Montana State Rep. Rae Peppers, Northern Cheyenne, D-Lame Deer, has proposed Hanna’s Act, a bill aiming to streamline the jurisdictional labyrinth regarding missing Indigenous persons. It was named after Hanna Harris, a Northern Cheyenne woman murdered while trying to fend off her attackers after being sexually assaulted by Garret Wadda.
Wadda’s common-law wife, Eugenia Ann Rowland, was sentenced to 22 years for her role in the murder. Rowland said on the morning of July 4 she woke up to screams from Harris, whom Wadda was trying to rape. She said she went to help Harris, but when Harris struck at her, they both beat her to death.
Harris’s body was found four hot summer days later, badly decomposed. Wadda plead guilty to being an accessory after the fact for dumping Harris’ partially clothed body by the Lame Deer rodeo grounds after the murder, and his role in the beating was not mentioned at his sentencing hearing.
Rowland’s attorney, Robert Kelleher Jr., had argued in court Rowland shouldn’t have a sentence longer than his client. “Not to be glib about it,” Kelleher said of Wadda, “but he’s getting away with murder.”
At his sentencing, Harris’ mother, Melinda Harris — who gave a prayer prior to the march — told Wadda: “I don’t know how you were raised, but you don’t rape women, you don’t kill them, you don’t hide them, you don’t bury them. People say if you want to get away with murder, go to the reservation. I think it’s true.”
Rynelea Pena, president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, recalled Harris as a kid when she used to drive a school bus, and spoke of how Harris’s death had impacted the community. She said of the light sentences of her killers, “As far as justice, they’ll walk out of prison someday. That’s not justice in my eyes.”
Pena never thought her Northern Cheyenne community would have to go through such an ordeal with Harris again, “And here comes Henny Scott missing. Then as time went on, and on, and on, she never showed up, she never came home,” she said.
Pena noted her people’s resilience and being able to come together during hardships. She said, “But because of the community taking a stance and saying, ‘Let’s get together, and see what we can do,’ we made it a point to help her mother.”
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines R-Montana has introduced a bill recognizing May 5th as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. May 5th is Hanna Harris’ birthday. She would have been 27 this year.
“She was a beautiful 21-year-old mother with a 10-month-old baby, who was viciously and sexually assaulted and murdered, and that is something terrible and evil, and we hope something good comes out of it,” Daines said. “You all coming together is how the light embraces and takes on the darkness.”
Acknowledging others who’ve had loved ones go missing and murdered, “This is a club you do not want to be in, but the supporters are awesome,” Castro said. “I never did think I’d have this much support.”
Pena said, “God has given us a good day, given us a chance to speak loud: ‘Silent no more.’ We’re not here because we want to be here, we’re here because we have to be.”
Photos of the event by Adrian Jawort
MMIW March in Billings Montana
Photos by Adrian Jawort
Adrian L. Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne journalist and writer who lives in Billings, Montana. He is a co-founder of the Native Healing Lecture Series and also a founder of Off the Pass Press which aims to promote indigenous literature.
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