Where are the 710 missing Indigenous Women and Girls in Wyoming?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for staying with us on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and on Sunday, a body which authorities believe to be 22 year old Gabby Petito was found in Wyoming. This came after a nine-day search following the filing of a missing person's report by her family.
Now, Gabby's case garnered a lot of social media and mainstream media coverage, and thank goodness it did because it should. Many other young women who go missing, barely get any attention at all. In the state of Wyoming between 2011 and 2020, 710 Indigenous people went missing. 85% of them are children, and 57% are women.
According to a report released in January by the State's Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force, we're going to link a great piece from the Insider up at thetakeaway.org for you and it gets in deep on this issue. The report also shows that media coverage numbers are pretty astonishing, with only 30% of Indigenous homicide victims making the news compared to just over half of white victims. The homicide of Indigenous women has the lowest level of newspaper media coverage, less than one in five.
Here to help me with all of this is Mary Kathryn Nagle, Partner at Pipestem and Nagle Law Firm. It's a firm that is specializing in tribal sovereignty of native nations and peoples. She's also a citizen of Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Welcome, Mary Kathryn.
Mary Kathryn Nagle: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you saw the response of the FBI in the Gabby Petito case, how did you respond?
Mary Kathryn Nagle: First and foremost, I just want to say that no family should have to go through what Gabby's family is going through, and my heart breaks for them, and for her, she's lost her life. I speak to you today with a great amount of sorrow and compassion for her family, but when it comes to the FBI, I think what they've done for Gabby and for Gabby's family demonstrates what they are more than capable of doing for the hundreds and thousands of Indigenous women, children, and people in the United States who go missing that are murdered every--
Actually, I can't speak with specific data because so many of them are mislabeled by law enforcement as suicide or runaways. When much like this unfortunate tragic case, there are incredibly suspicious circumstances and the FBI, despite having jurisdiction over Indian country lands or reservations, tribal lands, like they do. National parks have jurisdiction, they have the capability, they have the resources. In many instances, they have the technology, they have the mandate, they have the federal trust duty and responsibility to investigate, and they simply are not.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You've said a few things I want to make sure that we have some clarity around. The first is, in this case, even as I was introducing it, I felt that tension between being able to say and speak Gabby Petito's name, having images of her in my head from the-- again, heartbreaking video that we've seen of such an alive young person, cut short, but I couldn't say the names. I could only give stats, can you help us first by maybe humanizing and at least one case, an Indigenous woman or child who's missing who we don't know what's happened?
Mary Kathryn Nagle: Sure. There are so many, I could talk to you for hours. It's hard to say why, but for whatever reason, Olivia Lone Bear's case is really jumping to mind immediately. That's probably because her brother Matthew fought for almost an entire year, I believe it was 10 months, but I might be off it could be 11 or 12, fought very hard to get the FBI to investigate the murder of his sister who went missing on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, FBI refused and refused and refused.
Her family had to get attorneys to call, then and ask Senator Heitkamp to advocate. Senator Heitkamp, then who doesn't have direct line authority over the FBI, but as a Senator in the United States Congress, said to the FBI, "Please, please investigate this missing Indigenous woman on the Fort Berthold Reservation." Her brother kept saying, "Search the lakes, search the lakes." There are so many lakes up there, manmade lakes from the Army Corps of Engineers, another catastrophe by the federal government but put that aside.
They finally, finally, finally, 10 months later investigated Lake Sacajawea and dredged up her truck, which was at the bottom of the lake. When they did that, she was seat belted into the passenger side alone in the truck at the bottom of the lake. This is a mother, a young mother of young, young children. Her brother said, "There's no way she would have driven her truck, abandon her children into the bottom of the lake. She was murdered." The federal authorities who pulled her body out of the lake said, "Well, it's probably a suicide here." They're not investigating it as a homicide.
That's the kind of treatment that native women get when they go missing. I represent the family of Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, and her body was found five days after she went missing in a busy, busy intersection in this suburban area in Hardin, Montana. I visited that spot. If you stand there, a car drives by every 15 to 30 seconds during the day, you can see the flowers and a cross that her family and friends have left there. The FBI has said, "Well, the only conclusion you can draw here is that her body--" She is crouched, she laid there for five days because her body was pretty badly decomposed when it was discovered.
They said, "Well, she just laid there for five days until she was discovered", even though the family insisted that her body was dropped there and that she was murdered elsewhere. Because it's just very obvious that her body would have been seen by everyone who was searching for her tf her body had truly been laying there for five days straight, which we know it has not been.
They have not done an investigation. Her body was found half a mile off the Crow Reservation border, and because her body was discovered half a mile, because their theory is that she laid there for five days straight, they have refused to investigate or even talk to the family, honestly, and do an interview, which would be a great first step, and they have not done that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: First of all, thank you for sharing those stories, which are just brutal and shocking that they are not a regular part of our news. That we're not hearing that and talking about it and finding a way to put public pressure. This is part of what happens when families lose loved ones under these difficult circumstances, is that sometimes that public pressure helps to push investigations forward.
The second thing that you said in your initial answer, I want to circle back to, has to do with FBI authority on Indigenous lands. Talk to us a little bit about that. Clarify why it's the FBI who's doing these, or in this case, refusing to do these investigations.
Mary Kathryn Nagle: Sure. There's a sovereign to sovereign relationship between the tribal nations that predate the existence, the United States and the United States itself. That is, for many reasons, one of which is that when the United States first came into existence, one of the very first things this country did to legitimize its existence within the international community was sign treaties with tribal nations. That was how it showed France, Britain, Spain, "Hey, we can do it. You do too. We can also sign treaties with these tribal nations, just like you have".
Those treaties guarantee several rights and they were, of course, made in exchange for the hundreds of millions of acres that now comprise the United States. Within those treaties are guarantees of protection and duties of protection, and as Secretary Haaland has noted many times since becoming the first native woman Secretary of the Department of Interior, those treaties contain federal trust duties and responsibilities and President Biden has acknowledged this as well.
The federal government has a federal trust, duty, and responsibility to the citizens of our tribal nations. Part of that is the protection, is the duty to protect from unlawful bad actors who commit these crimes and these homicides. Now, this duty is made all the more important for the FBI, which is a federal agency to undertake its duty and its job to protect our women and children from murders and from homicides. Because in 1978, the United States Supreme Court in a decision called Oliphant versus Suquamish Indian Tribe, erased tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands.
That has had a devastating impact for public safety on our tribal lands. Because we know from the National Institute of Justice, the department within the Department of Justice, that the majority of violent crimes committed against native people are committed by non-Indians. If you look at the Supreme Court's decision in 1978, tribes do not have criminal jurisdiction, for the most part, over non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands.
The reality of that today is that because of all Oliphant, tribal nations are without criminal jurisdiction to prosecute the homicides committed against native women and children perpetrated by non-Indians. We look to the federal government to do its job and in most cases, in the vast majority of cases, it simply is not.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mary Kathryn, let me ask just one last question. What are the key changes, from what you've seen here, that need to happen from top-down or from bottom-up, particularly given this question of sovereignty and jurisdiction that we just discussed?
Mary Kathryn Nagle: I really appreciate that question because it's one thing to talk about the problem, but we love talking about the solution because we want to save lives. I don't want to just keep appearing on these programs every time a native woman or girl is murdered, we want to stop it from happening.
My other client that I represent on a daily basis is the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, NIWRC, headquartered in Montana. They're a national nonprofit working to end violence against native women and girls. One of the main goals we have is the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, we are actively working and advocating for Congress to restore the tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians that the Supreme Court took away in 1978, and we've made great progress.
Of course, we got a House version of that bill, H.R.1620 through the House, it's bipartisan Republicans and Democrats supported restoration of tribal criminal jurisdiction for many crimes that ultimately result in homicide, including trafficking, stranger sexual assault, and child abuse, elder abuse. That bill is stalled in the Senate right now, we have heard good news that Republicans and Democrats are trying to work together, but it has taken quite some time, and we're still advocating for the Senate to prioritize this critical bill.
I would also say that while we're working to restore tribal criminal jurisdiction, we need more funding for our tribal governments because the federal laws that are in place, our tribal governments, tribal law enforcement, tribal victim services programs are not funded at the same levels that the State and federal are, and that's simply because, in many instances, our tribal nations are not lawfully permitted to collect income tax, sales tax, property tax from anyone within their borders the same way States are and the federal government is.
The final thing I would say is our families have struggled with United States Attorney's Offices and the FBI to get the respect and the treatment they deserve when one of their loved ones is murdered. I represent the family of Lindsay Whiteman. The FBI would not answer her mother's calls for help or do a real interview. They came to the funeral and tried to talk to a few people at a funeral. When people were reluctant to talk at a funeral, they decided there was no point in doing any kind of investigation, and did not come back to talk to the family further or any other eyewitnesses.
Two years later, after really not conducting an investigation, they showed up at Lindsay's brother's workplace and just showed up where he was working, there on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, and said, "Here is the clothing that your sister was wearing the day she died. We're done with our investigation." That's how the FBI is handling these cases. That's not going to change unless from the very top, from President Biden himself, he demands that kind of change.
In order to carry that out, you're going to have to put native people who have experience in this specific crisis at the top echelons of the FBI in the United States Department of Justice. The Biden Administration has yet to do that, until that happens and tell people who are subject matter experts and who care about prioritizing this crisis, this particular crisis, get placed at the top of those federal agencies, change will not happen in those federal agencies. It's been this way for decades, and it's going to take actual people with the subject matter expertise being placed in those spots for real change to occur.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mary Kathryn Nagle, Partner at Pipestem and Nagel Law, the firms specializing in tribal sovereignty of native nations and peoples. Thank you for joining us.
Mary Kathryn Nagle: Thanks so much for having me.
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