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#NotInvisible: Why are Native American women vanishing?

The searchers rummage through the abandoned trailer in Valier, Montana, flipping a battered couch, unfurling a stained sheet, looking for clues. It’s blistering hot and a grizzly bear lurking in the brush unleashes a menacing growl. They can’t stop, though.

Not when a loved one is still missing.

Ashley HeavyRunner Loring, a 20-year-old member of the Blackfeet Nation, was last heard from around June 8, 2017. Since then her older sister, Kimberly, has been looking for her. She has logged about 40 searches, with family from afar sometimes using Google Earth to guide her around closed roads. She’s hiked in mountains, shouting her sister’s name. She’s trekked through fields, gingerly stepping around snakes. She’s trudged through snow, rain and mud, but she can’t cover the entire 1.5 million-acre reservation, an expanse larger than Delaware.

“I need to do this,” says 24-year-old Kimberly. “I don’t want to search until I’m 80. But if I have to, I will.”

Ashley’s disappearance is one small chapter in the unsettling story of missing and murdered Native American women and girls. No one knows precisely how many there are because some cases go unreported, others aren’t documented thoroughly and there isn’t a specific government database tracking these cases. One U.S. senator with victims in her home state calls this an epidemic, a long-standing problem linked to inadequate resources, outright indifference and a confusing jurisdictional maze.

Now, in the era of #MeToo, this issue is gaining political traction as an expanding activist movement focuses on Native women, a population with some of the nation’s highest rates of sexual violence and domestic abuse.

“Just the fact we’re making policymakers acknowledge this is an issue that requires government response, that’s progress in itself,” says Annita Lucchesi, a cartographer and descendant of the Cheyenne who is building a database of missing and murdered indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada — a list of some 2,700 names so far.

For many, the issue is deeply personal.

“I can’t think of a single person that I know … who doesn’t have some sort of experience,” says Ivan MacDonald, a member of the Blackfeet Nation. “These women aren’t just statistics. These are grandma, these are mom. This is an aunt, this is a daughter.”

MacDonald and his sister, Ivy, recently produced a documentary on Native American women and girls in Montana who’ve vanished or been killed. Among them: their 7-year-old cousin, Monica, who disappeared from school in 1979. Her body was found frozen on a mountain, and no one has ever been arrested.

There are many similar mysteries. Sometimes, there’s a quick resolution. Often, though, there’s frustration with tribal police and federal authorities, and a feeling many cases aren’t handled urgently or thoroughly.

“It boils down to racism,” MacDonald argues. “You could sort of tie it into poverty or drug use or some of those factors … (but) the federal government doesn’t really give a crap at the end of the day.”

Tribal police and investigators from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs serve as law enforcement on reservations, which are sovereign nations. The FBI, however, investigates certain offenses and, if there’s ample evidence, the U.S. Department of Justice prosecutes major felonies such as murder, kidnapping and rape if they occur on tribal lands.

Kimberly Loring, left, touches her forehead to her little sister, Jonnilyn, 17, as she says goodbye before heading out on a search for their missing sister Ashley with their cousin, Lissa Loring, left, outside their home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Mont., Wednesday, July 11, 2018. "I'm the older sister. I need to do this," says 24-year-old Kimberly. "I don't want to search until I'm 80. But if I have to, I will." (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Kimberly Loring, left, touches her forehead to her little sister, Jonnilyn, 17, as she says goodbye before heading out on a search for their missing sister Ashley with their cousin, Lissa Loring, left, outside their home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Mont., Wednesday, July 11, 2018. “I’m the older sister. I need to do this,” says 24-year-old Kimberly. “I don’t want to search until I’m 80. But if I have to, I will.” (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Former North Dakota federal prosecutor Tim Purdon calls it a “jurisdictional thicket” of overlapping authority and different laws depending on the crime, where it happened (on a reservation or not) and whether a tribal member is the victim or perpetrator. Missing-person cases on reservations can be especially tricky. Some people run away, although if a crime is suspected, it’s difficult to know how to get help.

“Where do I go to file a missing person’s report?” Purdon asks. “Do I go to the tribal police? … In some places they’re underfunded and undertrained. The Bureau of Indian Affairs? The FBI? They might want to help, but a missing-person case without more is not a crime, so they may not be able to open an investigation. … Do I go to one of the county sheriffs? … If that sounds like a horribly complicated mishmash of law enforcement jurisdictions that would tremendously complicate how I would try to find help, it’s because that’s what it is.”

Sarah Deer, a University of Kansas professor, author of a book on sexual violence in Indian Country and member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, says Native women have long been considered disposable and that’s “made us more of a target, particularly for the women who have addiction issues, PTSD and other kinds of maladies.”

That attitude permeates reservations where tribal police are frequently stretched thin and lack training and families complain officers can be slow to respond, telling them their loved ones will eventually return.

As a result, some families start their own investigations.

Matthew Lone Bear spent nine months looking for his older sister, Olivia — using drones and four-wheelers, fending off snakes and crisscrossing nearly a million acres, often on foot. The 32-year-old mother of five was last seen driving a Chevy Silverado on Oct. 25, 2017, in downtown New Town, on North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Reservation.

On July 31, volunteers using sonar found the truck with Olivia inside submerged in a lake less than a mile from her home. It’s a body of water that was searched before, her brother says, but “obviously not as thoroughly, or they would have found it a long time ago.”

Lone Bear says authorities were slow in launching their search — it took days to get underway — and didn’t get boats in the water until December, despite his frequent pleas. He’s working to develop a protocol for missing person cases for North Dakota’s tribes “that gets the red tape and bureaucracy out of the way,” he says.

The FBI is investigating Olivia’s death. “She’s home,” her brother adds, “but how did she get there? We don’t have any of those answers.”

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is trying to address these problems with “Savanna’s Act,” named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, 22, who was murdered in North Dakota in 2017 while eight months pregnant. Neighbors cut her baby girl from her womb. The child survived. A woman pleaded guilty, and her boyfriend awaits trial.

The bill proposed by Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, aims to improve tribal access to federal crime-information databases. It would also require the Department of Justice to develop a protocol to respond to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans.

Lawmakers in a few states also are responding with measures that aim to get a better handle on the magnitude of the problem. In Montana, a legislative tribal-relations committee has proposals for five bills to deal with missing persons. In July 2017, 22 of 72 missing girls or women — or about 30 percent — were Native American, according to Montana’s Department of Justice. Native females comprise only 3.3 percent of the state’s population.

On some reservations, Native American women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average and more than half of Alaska Native and Native women have experienced sexual violence at some point, according to the U.S. Justice Department. A 2016 federal study found more than 80 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetimes.

Though these crimes have shaken the community, “there is a tendency to be desensitized to violence,” says MacDonald, the filmmaker. “I wouldn’t call it avoidance. But if we would feel the full emotions, there would be people crying in the streets.”

His aunt, Mabel Wells, would be among them.

Nearly 40 years have passed since that December day when her daughter, Monica, vanished. Wells remembers every terrible moment: The police handing her Monica’s boot after it was found by a hunter and the silent scream in her head: “It’s hers! It’s hers!” Her brother describing the little girl’s coat flapping in the wind after her daughter’s body was found. The pastor’s large hands that held hers as he solemnly declared: “Monica’s with the Lord.”

Monica’s father, Kenny Still Smoking, recalls that a medicine man told him his daughter’s abductor was a man who favored Western-style clothes and lived in a red house in a nearby town, although there was no practical way to pursue that suggestion.

Wells visits Monica’s gravesite every June 2, Monica’s birthday. She still hopes to see the perpetrator caught. “I want to sit with them and say, ‘Why? Why did you choose my daughter?'”

Even now, she can’t help but think of Monica alone on that mountain. “I wonder if she was hollering for me, saying, ‘Mom, help!'”

For the Blackfeet Nation Ashley’s disappearance is just the latest trauma.

Posters of her are scattered around town, showing a fresh-faced woman flashing the peace sign.

Kimberly remembers her sister as funny and feisty, the keeper of the family photo albums who always carried a camera. She learned to ride a horse before a bike and liked to whip up giant breakfasts of biscuits and gravy.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, working with the tribal police, headed up an initial investigation. BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling says 55 people were interviewed and 38 searches conducted and there are persons of interest. The FBI took charge in January after a lead took investigators off the reservation into another state, Darling adds. The FBI declined comment. A $10,000 reward is being offered.

One recent weekend at the annual North American Indian Days in Browning, Ashley’s family marched in a parade with a red banner honoring missing and murdered indigenous women.

They wore T-shirts with an image of Ashley, her long hair blowing in the wind, and the words: “We will never give up.”