Indigenous people have always known about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Missing and Murdered Indigenous People even when we didn’t have a term for them.
We all grew up with the stories of relatives who were murdered and have never received justice, and other relatives that never knew what happened — because their loved ones just disappeared one day.
Many Indigenous families have these stories, but until recently the wider world was not aware of what we have always known.
The murder of Emily Morgan is such a case that took place on the Choctaw Nation’s Reservation in Oklahoma nearly five years ago.
Since August 26, 2016, Emily’s mother, Kim Merryman, has not rested in pursuit of justice for her daughter. All of this has been done while she grieves, raises Emily’s son, and tends to the mourning of the rest of her family.
Kim attends nearly every MMIW or MMIP event in the state of Oklahoma to tell her daughter’s story and insists that the state do more to achieve justice, not only for her daughter, but for all missing and murdered Indigenous women and people. She advocates and cares for other families affected because she understands, better than anyone else, what they are going through.
Emily had risk factors — or those things that would make it easy for people to blame her — in regards to her murder. She had become a mother as a teenager. She struggled to make enough money to support herself and her son after her son’s father went to prison. When offered an opportunity to make money to go to college and support her son, she agreed.
As you might imagine, the opportunity wasn’t legal. Emily was asked to deliver drugs for a local dealer who was well connected in the community. It didn't take long for the dealer to enter into a sexual relationship with Emily. The longer she was involved with the dealer, the more control he had over her life. When the dealer was not happy with her, her phone would be shut off and bills could not be paid. But Emily could not be controlled very easily and that became a problem.
On the morning of August 26, 2016, Emily’s car was found at a vacant house. Inside the car, Emily and her best friend Totinika Elix were found dead, both had been shot at close range. Emily’s phone was gone. No gun was found. The only thing that anyone knew was that Emily was supposed to meet the dealer the night before.
What is not so apparent from the basics of Emily’s story is that she was loved, she had dreams, and she was the light of her family. Emily was also a devoted mother to her son Payden. Although Emily did not have a formal education, she was intelligent and determined, Emily mattered. To the Indigenous community, Emily still matters.
In 2020, after Emily’s mother Kim discovered that some of the neighbors of the property where Emily was found had not been interviewed, an Oklahoma missing and murdered support group assisted in hiring an Indigenous private investigator.
Up to that point, Kim had believed that the local county sheriff’s office had done all they could do and without finding the murder weapon, charges would never be filed. Though disappointed, Kim had faith that local law enforcement cared about her daughter’s case and assumed that they were disappointed that they didn’t have what they needed to charge the main person of interest with the murders.
In early 2021, Kim got a call saying that Emily’s case had been presented to a cold case team.
When Kim heard the words “cold case,” her guilt was overwhelming. She believed she had let her daughter down because she had not been able to push hard enough to make sure that Emily’s killer was punished. She feared that she had not worked hard enough to prevent the case from becoming cold.
She blamed herself for allowing people to forget about Emily.
As an advocate, I am often asked, “How many missing and murdered Indigenous women/people are there?” I always respond, “How far back do you want to go?” I am often asked why our people go missing or are murdered at higher rates than other demographics. To answer, I go through the list of risk factors that plague our people. However, for the families, these cases aren’t as simple as listing numbers and risk factors. Missing and murdered Indigenous relatives are human beings with people who love them, carry their memories, and mourn for them.
To add to the agony of living through years of mourning, begging for assistance from law enforcement, and years of court proceedings in the pursuit of justice (if charges are ever filed,) Governor Stitt of Oklahoma and his district attorneys are now inspiring fear among the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women/people because of the McGirt Decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Victim families in Oklahoma are now being told that those charged with the murders of their loved ones and the investigations of Indigenous murders are now in jeopardy.
What we know as advocates for the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and people is that too often charges are not filed, and investigations are not done, or not done properly.
We watch as families attempting to file missing person reports are turned away by law enforcement who hand out misinformation that a person must be missing for 24 hours or 48 hours before they can take a report.
In some cases, even after weeks, law enforcement will tell families that they simply don’t believe the person is missing and continue to refuse to take the report. As advocates, we watch as our Indigenous children who were put into state custody are listed as runaways and no active efforts are made to find them.
What we also know is that until McGirt, the state of Oklahoma was doing little to address the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women/people within its borders and that since the decision, state officials are still doing little but are talking much more.
In the meantime, we watch families suffer as the cases of their loved ones are classified as cold cases and excuses are made month after month.
Now that McGirt affects the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Emily’s case should be investigated by the FBI and tribal law enforcement. This would mean that the case would have to be turned over by the state to the federal and tribal investigators. Without public pressure, it is unlikely that the case will be handed off.
Emily’s case is not unique in Indian Country. Too many families report a lack of cooperation or effort from law enforcement. Too many families report further harm being caused by law enforcement as they blame the victim, misgender victims, and avoid keeping the families updated on investigations and the rare prosecutions.
While Governor Stitt tells Oklahomans that he is concerned for victims because of the McGirt decision, he fails to mention that murdered and missing Indigenous women and people were never a real concern for state officials.