These were the questions at the heart of a several-hundred-mile horse ride undertaken the last two weeks by members of indigenous nations throughout the Midwest: Where is the justice for the thousands of indigenous people — especially women — who have historically been displaced and murdered by the U.S. government? Where is the outcry for those who continue to go missing or end up murdered to this day? When will systemic violence against women, especially native women, finally end?
Starting in Santee, Nebraska on May 25 and ending with a memorial rally on the Capitol steps here in Pierre on June 4, this horse ride — the Ride — sought to bring awareness to the epidemic of abused, missing and murdered indigenous people, especially women, plaguing the country. There have been other Rides in the past, and this Ride is on track to become a yearly event.
“This is the first annual Ride to Pierre for all missing and murdered indigenous women,” Leta Wise Spirit, said at the rally. She was one of the many women who helped lead the rally.
The Ride was also led by Jim Hallum, a resident of the Santee Reservation in Nebraska, in cooperation with many other Dakota advocacy groups for murdered and missing indigenous women (MMIW). Hallum said the idea for this Ride grew out of Rides undertaken the last four years. Those Rides honored men and women who died due to war and occupation of native lands by the U.S. government; particularly, the 38 Dakota men the U.S. government publicly hung in the aftermath of the 1862 U.S. — Dakota War.
“When we were on the 38 Ride, a man from New Mexico rode with us, he made us a blanket for the murdered and missing indigenous women. It was a horse blanket, with the women’s colors... we took that with us, we carried that with us,” Hallum said.
Those previous Rides, Hallum said, typically ended at Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek reservation. That is where many Dakota people — originally from south and central Minnesota — were sent in the aftermath of the 1862 war, he said, and from where many dispersed into the surrounding areas.
“Some went north,” Hallum said. “Some went west.”
In contrast, this Ride — though it did stop in Fort Thompson — ended in front of the Pierre Capitol building both to honor the native women in the state who had historically suffered abuse — particularly sexual predation — under U.S. occupation throughout the latter 1800s, and to call attention to the fact that disappearance, rape, murder and other violent crimes disproportionately affect indigenous women to this day.
“I have a sister that was 15 that went missing,” a rally participant named Blue Star Woman said. “A lot of people from the community of Pierre, Chamberlain, Fort Thompson; 350 people or more joined hands and looked for her. She was found in a spot that they had just walked through, days before, near the highway. I did it for her today. ”
The prevalence of indigenous women going missing — or being found murdered — is paradoxically both well-known and not well documented at all, in South Dakota and across the country. In a 2018 study, the Urban Indian Health Institute found that 5,712 individual reports of missing indigenous women were filed with police across the country in 2016. Most reports came from five key areas: The Four Corners region (including Nevada), the Northern Plains (including South Dakota), the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and California. Of those 5,712 reports, only 116 of them were logged in the Department of Justice’s missing persons database, “NamUs.”
The Center for Disease Control has reported since 2015 that homicide one of the is the leading causes of unnatural death among Native American women, yet the UIHI report found that in some urban areas up to a third of murder cases involving Indigenous Women go un-investigated. Likewise, some 95 percent of the murder cases involving Native American women which the UIHI study investigated, were never covered in the media.
At the rally on the Capitol steps, Jim Hallum read out the names of 130 missing indigenous women from around the Midwest. He made it clear that more names existed than he had on his list.
“That’s just part of the list,” he said. “This is over 130 names. In 2016 there was over 5,700 names. But we don’t have those, because there’s no database for them.
The reasons why vanishing and violence disproportionately affect indigenous women are varied and sundry; many are rooted in what the UIHI study called “colonial relationships that marginalize and disenfranchise people of color and remains complicit in violence targeting American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls.”
Put another way, the study claims many indigenous women are still suffering the consequences of several centuries of genocide, displacement and institutional racism at the hands of the American government.
“If there were one reason or ten reasons [why indigenous women went missing or were murdered], that would be easy. But there’s thousands of reasons,” Linda LeGarde Grover said. Grover is a member of the Bois Forte Band of Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, a novelist, and a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. “There’s a lot of historical and inter-generational reasons.”
The reasons why the injustices indigenous women suffer go under-reported and un-investigated are just as varied; they can include everything from the racial mis-classification of victims, to mistrust of law enforcement due to the ongoing history of police brutality, to generally poor record keeping among government offices, to the bias of many media outlets and law enforcement offices that assumes most crimes against native peoples take place on reservations — in fact, the UIHI study reported that 71 percent of all Native Americans live in urban areas outside reservations.
It’s a large enough problem that this year the South Dakota legislature passed SB 146, an act designed specifically to create protocol for investigating and documenting cases of MMIW.
“The director of the Division of Criminal Investigation shall prepare guidelines and uniform procedures for the reporting of and investigation of missing persons, including missing and murdered indigenous women and children, and runaways. The director shall distribute the guidelines to law enforcement agencies within the state,” SB 146 reads.
Governor Kristi Noem was a supporter of this act. She also joined the riders on horseback for the last leg of their Ride this week, and gave a short speech at the Capitol rally. Noem was recently banned from Oglala Lakota land for passing bills effectively outlawing future protest of the Keystone XL Pipeline, without consulting any tribal authorities. An organizer for the Ride, Perry Little, said some of the riders were conflicted over her participation.
“A lot of people, they were ok with it; you know, she’s a woman, she has kids, maybe she can understand what we’re doing,” Little said. “At the same time, there were people that were upset that the governor participated, because of some of her past actions.”
Dave Flute, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate nation and Cabinet Secretary for the state Department of Tribal Relations, said Noem’s support for the Ride and for SB 146 were both admirable.
“I’ve been heavily involved in tribal government and as a former chairman but I’ve never seen a governor ride with the tribes,” he said. “I think that’s important for nation-building.”
Regardless of people’s individual feelings on Noem, Wise Spirit said it was important for non-native people in general to recognize the ubiquity of violence in society.
“I believe that it’s not only native people that go missing,” she said. “To protect our children and our women in the future… break the silence!”
The rally itself drew a crowd of non-native (mostly white) onlookers; some tourists, some Pierre residents out for a walk. Even construction workers repairing the Capitol’s roof took a break to watch the events unfold. All joined in applauding when the riders presented Flute with a quilt, made by indigenous women of many nations, symbolizing both the resilience of indigenous women and the loss felt whenever an indigenous woman goes missing or is murdered. The quilt, Flute said, would soon be hung in the Capitol building.
A quilt alone may not stop indigenous women from going missing or being murdered. But Wise Spirit said increased visibility and response to the issue — the kind actions like the Ride embody — may.
“So many times we think that nobody’s going to listen, but people do. People do listen,” Wise Spirit said.