Silent no more: Native communities call for end to crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women
Maggie Calhoun Bowman’s family has spent the last 17 years making peace with the fact that they will never know how she ended up dead in a rain gully, covered over with leaves and a pink coat.
Bowman didn’t really have a home. Recently divorced, she wandered from berth to berth, bouncing between the houses of various friends and family members. But her family became concerned when she didn’t come around for Thanksgiving, and when she still hadn’t turned up a week later when the December per capita payments went out, they knew there was something wrong.
A week later, a cadaver dog finally sniffed out her body — there wasn’t much left. The family gathered the few remaining fragments for burial.
“That’s all we know,” said Bowman’s sister, Bernice Bauchenbaugh. “All of the people that were in suspicion at that time, they’re all gone, so we’re never going to know what happened.”
Bauchenbaugh sat beside her daughter, Karina Crowe, at a fold-up table laden with ruby red signs, each bearing the black-lettered name of a Cherokee women whose life, like Bowman’s, had been taken too soon. They were two of about 25 people at the Yellowhill Community Center that Sunday afternoon, April 24, painting the names of lost sisters, daughters, mothers and friends on rectangular pieces of wood. The following weekend, Cherokee men and women would hold those signs aloft as they walked down Tsali Boulevard for the third annual Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s March.
Loretta Bolden, who spent 19 years as a teacher at Cherokee Central School, organized the first march in 2020 after finding that the number of missing and murdered Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians members was much larger than she’d first realized.
“And I’m finding a lot of people don’t know,” she said.
“These people are not nameless. They’re not unknown people,” said Leah Wolfe, another of the effort’s organizers. “They have families, and these people, they need closure, at the end of the day. They were somebody’s mother, they were somebody’s daughter.”
Susanne Brady, seated at a table toward the back of the room with her grandchildren, Kalina and Billy Jack Hicks, Jr., misses her daughter each day. Danielle Brady Hicks, who was only 34 when she died , was the youngest of Brady’s five children, and her only girl. Brady remembers her daughter as a little girl who liked dolls, horses and fishing, and who grew into a smart, kind-hearted woman who could seemingly do anything — except leave her allegedly abusive husband Billy Jack Hicks, the father of her two children.
Danielle, then pregnant with a third child, died of a gunshot wound on an October day in 2020. Hicks sits in the Jackson County Detention Center, held without bond and accused of her murder.
Her daughter’s teenage children now live with her. She sees their arrival as a second chance to do for them what she wasn’t able to do for Danielle. It’s a responsibility she guards carefully.
“I tell them I couldn’t protect your mom,” she said. “So I have to protect you.”
A couple tables away, Diane Wolfe is painting awareness for yet another stolen sister — her aunt, Marie Walkingstick Pheasant, a “quiet, sweet, loving girl” whose life ended too soon. It’s been nearly a decade since she died, but the case remains unsolved.
Pheasant was 26 and the mother of two young children when her body was found in a burned-out vehicle in Cherokee’s Big Cove Community on Dec. 29, 2013. Despite investigative efforts from the Cherokee Indian Police Department, N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and the FBI, nobody was ever charged in her death, though police suspected foul play.
Josh Taylor, who until June 27 was Cherokee’s chief of police, believes the responsible person is still out there, as are people who continue to keep silent about what they know. In the aftermath of Pheasant’s death, the police department issued a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. Over the past year the department has ratcheted that number upwards — it now sits at $20,000.
“Next year will be the 10th anniversary of her death,” said Alica Wildcatt, public information officer for the CIPD. “And I was thinking about this the other day: $50,000, is that worth us getting information to arrest somebody to give her justice? You can’t put a price on anybody’s life or getting them justice.”
Diane Wolfe, now 57, remembers Pheasant’s good sense of fun and abiding love for her two children, a baby girl and a boy who was just a toddler when she died.
Now she’s gone forever, and a conviction wouldn’t bring her back to life.
But it would break the family out of the stalemate it’s been stuck in for nine years. Pheasant’s death remains an active investigation, which means the police can’t share details about the circumstances surrounding it, and her family can’t publicly voice their suspicions. Her children are no longer babies, and the family is wrestling with how much to tell them, and when.
“They’re getting older,” Diane Wolfe said. “They’re going to see the newspaper, the picture, and it’s going to be a shock to them.”
- Images from Moe Hernandez’ series illustrating the MMIW crisis will be featured in an upcoming exhibit at Western Carolina University’s Bardo Arts Center. Moe Hernandez photo
The deaths of Maggie Bowman, Danielle Hicks and Marie Pheasant are devastating tragedies, but they’re not isolated incidents. They’re symptoms of a nationwide epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women.
According to a 2016 National Institute of Justice Research Report, more than 4 in 5 Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetime, over half have experienced sexual violence and the majority have been victims of physical violence at the hands of intimate partners. Native women are 1.7 times more likely than White women to have experienced violence in the past year. In some counties, they face murder rates more than 10 times the national average.
Due to a variety of factors — jurisdictional issues, recordkeeping, data quality — exact figures on such cases are hard to come by. By combing police records and investigating community reports, Wildcatt has compiled a list of 31 Cherokee women known to have been murdered, gone missing or died under mysterious circumstances. The earliest case dates to 1947, when a stranger kidnapped Dora Owl, took her out toward Fontana Dam, shot her and left her for dead.
“The bullet didn’t kill her instantly,” said Dylan Rose, who is Owl’s great-grandson. “She actually crawled her way all the way to a nearby road, where she was pretty much left for dead. Finally, someone came and picked her up, and on the way to the hospital to get help for her, she died.”
Owl’s case is one of seven on the list that remains unsolved. Only 10 of the deaths occurred on the Qualla Boundary, with the remaining ones taking place outside tribal lands, sometimes as far away as Florida or Los Angeles. Only one remains a missing persons case, that of a 13-year-old girl named Jacqueline Davis who disappeared in 1969. Of the 31 deaths, 15 resulted from gunshot wounds, seven from severe beating and three from being stabbed or cut.
“The six who haven’t received justice are the ones that speak to me the loudest,” Wildcatt said. “I wanted to get all this information so that I could put anybody’s name out there that hasn’t received justice. Nobody should die in the manner that any of these women did. But to get the families closure and some peace about how they were taken from them, I think that’s what makes it the most important to me.”
- Beloved Woman Carmaleta Monteith stands in the background before a pop-up art installation in Cherokee on the May 5 National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Holly Kays photo
Understanding the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis, often referred to in shorthand as MMIW, requires a journey back in time through a relationship as violent and tumultuous as any abusive romantic entanglement — the relationship between Native American tribes and the United States government.
“It’s really attributed to colonization and a lot of the federal laws and policies that have passed from the early 1800s, and how that’s continued to govern the lives and safety of Native women,” said Rose Quilt, director of policy and research for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center . “These loopholes give non-Native abusers and predators opportunity, and they do take this opportunity to target indigenous women with impunity.”
It doesn’t take much research to turn up examples of the myriad ways that European settlers and, later, the American government killed, abused and otherwise mistreated the Native people they eventually displaced. From the Trail of Tears in the 1830s to the 1890 massacre of hundreds of Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee to the forcible removal of Native children from their families for Westernization at Indian boarding schools , the stories are as numerous as they are tragic.
But some of the most insidious developments came about in more recent decades, when the massacres were over and the eviction from ancestral lands complete.
In 1953, Congress passed a resolution initiating a federal policy of terminating Indian tribes’ protected status. The policy included disbanding tribes, selling their land and moving them into cities and urban jobs, where they might assimilate into the general population.
In alignment with that policy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs launched a relocation program that pledged help with housing and employment for Native Americans who moved from their rural reservations to metropolitan areas. Many enrolled but later struggled with unemployment, low-end jobs, discrimination and disconnection with the culturally grounded communities from which they’d derived identity, values and a sense of belonging. Due to these challenges, half returned home within five years.
Even as relocation programs enticed many adult tribal members to leave their communities voluntarily, child welfare agencies were taking Indian children from their families en masse and placing them with non-Indian foster families. Until the Indian Child Welfare Act passed in 1978, parents didn’t have the right to say no if the government wished to place their children in off-reservation schools, and there were no policies encouraging placement of Indian children with Indian families. Research at the time found that 25-35% of Native children were being removed from home, with 85% of those placed outside their family or home community — even when fit and willing relatives were available to take them in.
“I think about the assimilation era policies and boarding school policies, where little children are being told, essentially, everything about you as a human being is bad. What does that do to a child, and what does it do to that child as they grow into a young adult or an adult and they have children of their own?” said Principal Chief Richard Sneed. “We still deal with the fallout of those backwards policies from 100-plus years ago. Those aren’t things that are immediately corrected — which is why we have to get back to a traditional set of our values and our identity as Cherokee people.”
The same year that the Indian Child Welfare Act gave Native American communities a reason to rejoice, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Oliphant vs. Suquamish Indian Tribe dealt them a blow from which they have yet to recover. In that decision, which stemmed from a case in which two non-Indian men were charged in the Suquamish tribal court for crimes on the reservation, the Supreme Court ruled that tribal courts do not have the authority to charge, prosecute and punish non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal land.
That ruling meant that such crimes had to be prosecuted in state or federal court, stripping tribal nations of the ability to protect their own people from non-Indian criminals.
When tribes stopped prosecuting non-enrolled offenders, indigenous women and children paid the highest price.
“It just makes sense that people who are predators are going to look for communities that are opportunistic, easy prey,” Sneed said. “Until such a time as tribes have the ability to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate non-Indians on tribal land, I think that it will continue to be an issue.”
- Red-painted signs memorialize the names of Cherokee’s missing and murdered women. Holly Kays photo
More often than not, murdered indigenous women and children die at the hands of the men who should have been their fiercest protectors — husbands, boyfriends, fathers.
Murder is very rarely the first sign of violence in such relationships. Professionals who deal with domestic violence often refer to the “spectrum of violence” and the importance of dealing with abusive behavior before it’s allowed to escalate.
Tribal leaders say that local jurisdiction offers the best chance of that outcome. Local officers have the on-the-ground knowledge they need to efficiently investigate and respond to reports of criminal behavior. Many tribal nations exist on far-flung tracts of land hours from any major city, adding multiple layers of complication to reliance on state or federal law enforcement agencies.
“When there’s a lack of cultural competency added onto layers of racism and prejudice, it can be really hard to get law enforcement, especially non-tribal law enforcement, to believe family members or to act with urgency on these cases,” said Kerri Colfer, senior Native affairs advisor for the NIWRC. “It’s often judging a victim more than a perpetrator.”
When prosecution requires witness participation, proximity is key. It’s always difficult to get traumatized domestic violence victims to take the stand — the challenge accelerates when that stand is in a different city, presided over by a judge who may not understand the victim’s cultural context.
For many reasons, it’s challenging to efficiently prosecute lower-level domestic violence crimes in federal court — which, until recently, is where all such cases involving enrolled victims and non-enrolled defendants had to go.
A 2013 report from the Indian Law and Order Commission highlighted the threats that this “jurisdictional maze” poses to victims in need of justice, concluding that the “extraordinary waste” of governmental resources that results “can be shocking, as is the cost in human lives.”
“There have been times that three different jurisdictions were involved in the exact same incident,” said EBCI Tribal Prosecutor Cody White. “State court was involved, we were involved, the federal government was involved, all by mandate of law, not by choice. It was all in the exact same incident. Justice cannot move expeditiously and efficiently when it’s bifurcated like that.”
Recent federal legislation has returned some limited prosecutorial authority to tribal governments. The 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act included a provision that allows tribes to prosecute domestic violence crimes committed by non-Indians.
The reauthorization that passed this spring drastically expanded that authority. When it goes into effect Oct. 1, tribes that meet the qualifications outlined by the federal government will also be able to prosecute non-Indians for child violence, dating violence, assault of tribal justice personnel, obstruction of justice, sexual violence, sex trafficking, stalking and violation of a protective order. The EBCI expects to be ready to exercise this new authority by the Oct. 1 effective date.
“I was a cop before I was a prosecutor,” White said, “so I could imagine the relief of being able to get to a scene and my first analysis is scene preservation, witnessing, evidence collection, evidence preservation, all the things that a cop needs to be worried about – not jurisdiction.”
The VAWA reauthorization is a huge win, tribal leaders say, but it’s not enough.
It will never be enough, Sneed said, “until we get to the place where tribes are treated as true sovereigns that have the ability to exercise jurisdiction over whomever who has violated tribal law on tribal land.”
That is, until Oliphant is overturned.
But even if the Supreme Court struck down Oliphant tomorrow, many tribes would struggle to adequately protect their people and hold perpetrators accountable.
“VAWA is what VAWA is. It’s limited,” Sneed said. “It does give some jurisdiction. But then we go back to the issue of tribes have to have the capacity to implement it. They have to have the capacity in their law enforcement to be able to enforce it and within the tribal courts.”
The EBCI is an anomaly among Indian tribes, one of the few in the continental U.S. to retain a fragment of their ancestral land rather than being forced to resettle on some distant, resource-poor prairie. With a pair of extremely lucrative casinos and a boundary that abuts two of the country’s most-visited National Park Service units , the EBCI has the resources to support a robust police force and court system. The Cherokee Indian Police Department employs about 70 sworn officers and covers a small land area compared to many Western tribes like the Navajo, so law enforcement can maintain a visible presence in Cherokee.
“We deal with the BIA, and they sometimes don’t understand how we operate, because I believe that we operate head and shoulders above any other Indian law enforcement agency in this country,” said Wildcatt.
However, not every Indian tribe has a casino to fund essential operations like law enforcement, and very few of those that do own casinos have an enterprise anywhere near as successful as Cherokee’s. Most tribes rely on the federal government for funding, and time and again they come up short. The Broken Promises Report , completed in 2018 by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, found that in 2009, BIA funding met only 42% of the need for law enforcement personnel in Indian Country — in 2010, law enforcement agencies nationwide had an average of 3.5 officers per 1,000 residents while law enforcement in Indian Country had only 1.91 officers per 1,000 people.
“The need for tribal courts to receive adequate funding to fulfill their judicial duties, including the prosecution of criminal activity, is exacerbated by the failure of the federal government to prosecute many of the serious crimes occurring in Indian Country,” the report continues. “Of the approximately 9,000 Indian Country criminal matters resolved by federal prosecutors between 2005 and 2009, the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices declined to prosecute half of the matters.”
In 42% of cases, “weak or inadmissible evidence” was cited as the reason for declining, with another 18% declined due to “no federal offense evident.”
“Not only are there federal laws and policies in place that contribute to violence against Native women, there’s also a lack of support system, meaning resources for tribes to help actually combat this issue,” said Colfer.
- In a portrait from Dylan Rose, Araceli Martinez, 14, stands strong despite experiencing violence as a young child. Rose’s work will be featured in an upcoming MMIW exhibition at the Bardo Arts Center. Dylan Rose photo
Throughout its long history of stripping tribes of their rights and encouraging them to abandon traditional ways, the federal government justified its actions by promoting a paternalistic view of Native Americans as childlike peoples in need of government guardianship. This view formed the basis for the awkward relationship that continues today — the federal government holds land in trust for tribes, terming them sovereign nations but also choosing when to dispense or withdraw funding, resources and authority.
As it relates to MMIW, the federal government has failed to either give tribes the freedom to deal with the issue themselves or to supply the resources needed to fulfill the trust responsibility it has claimed, said Quilt, the NIWRC’s policy and research director.
“The federal response to MMIW is a breach of the federal trust responsibility — and not only that, but it’s a human rights violation,” she said.
Beyond VAWA, the federal government has been making moves in recent years to rectify what’s wrong with violence prevention and prosecution on tribal lands. Oct. 10, 2020, was a landmark day for MMIW advocates, with President Donald Trump signing two long-awaited pieces of legislation into law: the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act.
“It was during 2020 when not a lot aside from COVID relief was happening, so it was exciting,” Colfer said in an April interview. “And here we are in 2022, and nothing has been done with them, which is upsetting.”
Savanna’s Act, named for Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Spirit Lake Indian member Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind , who was brutally murdered in 2017 in Fargo, North Dakota, aims to boost the reporting of violent crimes against indigenous people. It improves tribal access to certain federal crime information databases, requiring the federal government to consult with tribal leaders on how to further enhance database access and safety for Native women.
The Not Invisible Act, meanwhile, mandates creation of a commission composed of tribal leaders, law enforcement, federal partners, service providers and survivors to make recommendations to the Department of Interior and Department of Justice on combating violence against indigenous people. It also states that the DOI must designate a BIA official to coordinate prevention efforts, grants and programs related to missing persons, murder and human trafficking cases in Indian Country.
The legislation contained several deadlines to move the process along — the Commission was to be appointed by Jan. 10, 2021, and submit its recommendations no later than April 10, 2022. The Commission is to sunset on Oct. 10 of this year.
However, when Colfer and Quilt spoke to The Smoky Mountain News on April 21, no recommendations had been released because the Commission had not even been appointed.
“It is really disturbing and upsetting, because a lot of the families were hopeful after it passed,” Quilt said.
Commission members were finally appointed in mid-May following a virtual event hosted by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland on May 5, which is National Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.
“The missing and murdered indigenous peoples crisis is centuries in the making, and it will take a focused effort and time to unravel the many threads that contribute to the alarming rates,” Haaland said. “I’m grateful to those of you who rang the alarm and gave a voice to the missing.”
Haaland also highlighted the launch of the Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The unit formed last year and since then has worked to build up personnel and infrastructure, with 17 BIA offices across the nation now holding at least one agent dedicated to solving missing persons and murder cases involving indigenous people.
The BIA did not respond to questions about why it took so long to appoint Commission members or if the original sunset date will remain in effect, given the late start commission members now have. According to Quilt and Colfer’s organization, the NIWRC, the Commission will have 18 months to finish the job. Colfer has been appointed as a member of the Commission.
One day away from turning 8, Araceli Martinez climbed into the car with her mom and little brother to go buy some stocking stuffers for Christmas, only 15 days away.
It was shaping up to be a great week — until she saw her dad pull up in his Mustang. Araceli was still 7, but old enough to know that her father’s appearance meant violence was imminent.
“He come to the window, and he pulled out a gun and told me to get out of the car,” said Araceli’s mother Tasha Martinez, standing beside her daughter in a shady spot on the banks of the Oconaluftee River. Even with years of distance, the memory is disorientingly vivid. When he pulled the gun on her, Tasha said, she held down the emergency button on her phone — 911 came on the line, asking if she needed help. He heard the voice, and he “flipped out.”
Araceli, still a child, took on the role of protector. Her 5-year-old brother sat with her in the backseat, rocking back and forth with his hands over his ears. A metal Star Wars action figure, a stormtrooper, sat between them. She picked it up and hit her dad with it, pulled at his sweatshirt, did whatever she could to fight him off, despite a fear so deep she vomited as she fought. She got the door open, and Tasha screamed at her to take her brother and run. She did. After a few moments passed that to Tasha felt like hours, the SWAT team arrived.
Nearly seven years have passed, and by all appearances Araceli has put that terrible day behind her. A shy 14-year-old who takes comfort in the traditional dress, language and crafts of her ancestors, she carries herself with an air of strength and bravery. In 2017, she was crowned Little Miss Cherokee . She wants to make a difference for the girls and women who come after her.
“He was supposed to have protected her,” Tasha said. “That’s her dad, her blood, her father, and he’s the one that hurt her and caused her so much pain. And I think that that’s why she wants to be such a voice for this, because she is able to and others aren’t.”
Still, the trauma has left its mark. They’re all three on medication for anxiety and nervousness, Tasha said, a condition that’s not improved by the fact that the kids’ father, an illegal immigrant, now lives just one county over despite being previously deported to Guatamala.
“He has put a chip on her shoulder to where she’s constantly ready for whatever,” said Tasha. “I admire her bravery and courage that she has. She ain’t scared of nothing. She’s been through so much that she’s got this attitude of ‘I can take on this world, and I will stand my ground.’”
But Tasha worries that the past has stolen an essential innocence from her daughter’s life.
“I want her to just enjoy life without having to be ready all the time for something,” Tasha said, “and that’s how she feels she has to be.”
When Taylor started as police chief, he believed that drug abuse was hands-down the biggest law enforcement issue on the Qualla Boundary.
“I was 110% wrong,” he said. “The domestic violence and the child molestation are our number one problem. That’s what leads to drugs.”
Childhood trauma has repercussions. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration , research has shown that survivors are at increased risk of learning problems, long-term health issues like diabetes and heart disease, and involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Trauma is a risk factor for nearly all behavioral health and substance use disorders.
Those risks are higher for children without a strong support system to aid their recovery. When traumatized children grow up without the help they need to move past the violence done to them, they often become adults who help perpetuate that cycle into the next generation.
“It’s not only, from what we’ve seen, a pass-down of violent behavior but also the passing down of the victimization, the passing down of the silence,” said White, the tribal prosecutor. “If a girl sees mom be silent but be stoic, that’s how she may feel that she needs to respond in that situation.”
Alcohol and drug abuse, toward which some trauma survivors turn to numb the pain, can also fuel physical abuse. White has dealt with families who most of the time are a cohesive unit of people who treat each other well. But when alcohol is introduced, violence ensues.
“A lot of our offenders have either suffered some kind of childhood trauma themselves or witnessed violence in their own families,” he said. “And so it’s a cycle that continues to happen.”
The tribe is doing its best to break that cycle by empowering domestic violence victims to seek justice early on, getting child survivors the counseling they need, and exercising its authority under VAWA to prosecute perpetrators — but also through services for the perpetrators themselves.
The tribe operates a Batterers Treatment Program through its Analanisgi Program , which focuses on behavioral health. Perpetrators can and do receive jail time, but prosecutors will often recommend that they also go through the treatment program for an opportunity to have jail time deferred or reduced.
Domestic violence offenders don’t typically get life sentences — sooner or later, they get out of jail. If they then go right back to terrorizing the people they should be protecting, what good will it have done? The goal of the Batterers Treatment Program is to recognize that such behavior is often rooted in trauma, and to address that trauma so that the perpetrator and his or her family can have peace.
“If we’re going to address these issues on a systemic level, we’ve also got to put energy and dollars into programs that are going to help minimize the likelihood that this individual is going to continue to wreak havoc,” said Shelli Buckner of the EBCI Tribal Prosecutor’s Office.
Overall, the Batterers Treatment Program has been successful, White said, though there have been some repeat offenders.
“I think it depends on how you define success, too,” said Buckner. “We’ve had folks who’ve reoffended but have acted out against property as opposed to against people. I think that, while threatening, it may be considered progress.”
Punching a wall is bad, but it’s better than punching a person.
- Mary Crowe comforts Susanna Brady, whose daughter Danielle died after being shot in October 2020. Holly Kays photo
On a sunny, unseasonably warm day in May, Ashley Martin stands to the side as community members filter over the bridge and down the riverside path at the Oconaluftee Islands Park. It’s May 5, a day designated as a National Day of Awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women to honor the birthday of Northern Cheyenne citizen Hanna Harris, murdered in 2013. Martin has been working nonstop for the past week to complete the artistically designed maze of photos and mirrors that now adorns the grassy lawn.
Freestanding, full-length mirrors bear red-painted messages — “More than half of indigenous women experience sexual violence,” “Murder is the third leading cause of death for indigenous women,” “Am I next?” — juxtaposed against full-size prints of portraits, by tribal member Dylan Rose, depicting Cherokee women dressed in traditional clothing, standing strong.
One of the mirrors is smashed yet remains an integral part of the display. “I am not broken,” it says.
“You see young, hard-working women who just had the life sucked out of them by these men that just have no respect for themselves,” said Rose, tearing up as he thinks about the impact of violence on the women in his life. “So they just take the anger and hate, and their own insecurities out on our women.”
Martin said she organized the display to bring awareness to a pressing issue that, for most Americans, is bottom of mind.
“We’re just not thought of,” she said. “Not just Native women. Trans people, men, boys.”
More and more, Native people are speaking up, using their voices to advocate for an end to a crisis that’s largely invisible to suburban America. A new podcast hosted by three EBCI women, We Are Resilient: A MMIW True Crime Podcast , has turned out 32 episodes since it launched in October 2021, telling the stories of missing and murdered indigenous women across the nation. Cherokee’s third annual MMIW March, held April 30, drew about 200 people, and an upcoming art exhibition through Western Carolina University’s Cherokee Center will seek to bring voice to the crisis through sculptures and photographs. The Cherokee Police Department has placed a renewed focus on resolving cold cases like Pheasant’s.
Advocacy goes all the way to Washington, D.C., where Queen, Colfer and their colleagues at the NIWRC are working to implement their six-point action plan to address the MMIW crisis. The plan includes restoring tribes’ full legal authority to protect indigenous women; implementing Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act — and adopting additional legislation in consultation with tribal nations — to remove systemic barriers to families affected by the crisis; requiring every federal department to develop MMIW action plans in consultation with tribal nations; enacting legislation and policy to protect tribal lands from extraction industries and corporate interests; supporting the Native Hawaiian Resource Center on Domestic Violence; and ensuring adequate resources for indigenous women’s advocacy and services.
“There are so many issues that are really specific to Indian Country, and it’s important that service providers are able to understand their victims, especially on a cultural level,” said Colfer.
While the federal government is responsible for many of the factors that birthed the MMIW crisis, Sneed is wary about relying on them to solve it. The current relationship between tribes and the federal government evolved from a paradigm of the government as guardian and tribes as dependents.
“This is a heavy lift,” Sneed said, “but we’ve got to be able to break away from that paternalistic form of government and move more toward empowerment that’s tied to a traditional set of values.”
Taylor believes that there are people in the community today who know how Marie Pheasant died, just like he believes that there were people who knew what happened to Maggie Bowman but decided not to speak up.
“Our culture takes advantage of our own people sometimes, because they won’t speak up and tell what’s happened,” he said. “We can’t blame it all on the federal government. We need to step up as a community.”
Ending the crisis will rely as much on change at home as it will change in the halls of Congress, Sneed said. That starts with resurrecting the traditional culture and values too long suppressed or disrupted by government policy. Cherokee’s is a matrilineal culture, marked by strong women who command the respect of their communities. But it’s also a culture of strong men, and the community needs their strength to solve its problems.
“Our men were strong, and we need to reidentify with that part of our history and our identity,” said Sneed. “We were protectors and we were fierce fighters, and I think that needs to be part of what we are teaching our young men too, is that we are strong as well, and we are protectors of our women and children.”
As long as there are people on earth, there will be murder and there will be violence. But Indian Country leaders believe that the disproportionate impact of violence on Indian lands, particularly against women, is solvable — and they’re hopeful that it’s on its way to being solved.
“This crisis will no doubt end with our generation,” Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, declared during Haaland’s May 5 virtual event.
It’s a complex issue, and addressing it will require an all-hands-on-deck approach spanning all corners of geography and jurisdiction, Sneed said. But, he said, he can “absolutely agree” that within a generation, it is possible for MMIW to cease to be the crisis that it is today. Nothing gives him more hope than the grassroots efforts of people like Bolden, Martin, the We Are Resilient podcast hosts and everyone else working to expose and alleviate the crisis.
“To me that’s where real change always comes from,” said Sneed. “It’s rarely that it’s top-down. It’s always grassroots, bottom-up, citizens raising their voice and raising awareness. I’m very proud of our people for doing that.”
If you’re facing violence at home or are a survivor of domestic or sexual abuse, help is available. Call one of these 24/7 hotlines for confidential, compassionate assistance.
• StrongHearts Native Helpline offers culturally informed, anonymous, confidential and free service for Native Americans affected by domestic, dating and sexual violence. Dial or text 844.762.8483 or click the chat icon at strongheartshelpline.org.
• The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides lifesaving tools and immediate support to enable victims to find safety and live lives free of abuse. Call 800.799.7233 for help in more than 200 languages.
• The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network’s National Sexual Assault Hotline partners with more than 1,000 local providers across the country. Call 800.656.4673 or chat online at online.rainn.org.
• The National Deaf Hotline supports survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault who are deaf, deaf/blind, deaf/disabled or hard of hearing. Call 855.812.1001 or visit thedeafhotline.org.
• The National Human Trafficking Hotline serves victims and survivors of human trafficking, with service in more than 200 languages. Call 888.373.7888 or text 233733. humantraffickinghotline.org.
• The National Runaway Safeline aims to keep America’s runaway, homeless and at-risk youth safe and off the streets. Call 800.786.2929 or visit 1800runaway.org to work through problems and find local help from social service agencies and organizations.
• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Call 800.273.8255 or chat online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Say their names
For the past year, the Cherokee Indian Police Department has worked to compile a list of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians women and girls known to have been murdered or gone missing.
So far, the department’s public information officer, Alica Wildcatt, has identified 31 such cases, of which only 10 occurred on the Qualla Boundary. The victims range in age from eight months to 54 years, and 14 of them died from gunshot wounds.
• Dora Owl*
• Edna Long- Bradley
• Edith Emily Saunooke-Clark
• Jacqualine Davis*
• Malinda Catolster
• Hermie Elizabeth Sequoyah- Queen
• Ollie Cucumber-Hornbuckle
• Bethna Sue Bradley-McCoy
• Stacy Bigwitch
• Mary Catherine Haymond
• Patricia Louise Ander-Mount
• Martha Joyce Driver-Teesateskie
• Tina Michelle Brown-Young
• Banita Jumper-Gregory
• Carol Deanah McCoy
• Lucy Ann Wildcatt*
• Rita Ann Mathis
• Lucinda Ann Littlejohn*
• Gina Raquel Younce-Puckett
• Magdalene Calhoun-Bowman*
• Tamara Susan Seay
• Aubry Kina-Marie Littlejohn
• Marie Manurva Walkingstick Pheasant*
• Ora Lea Taylor-Hawkins
• Eva Michelle Blythe-Blevins
• Cheyenne Toineeta*
• Danielle Davina Brady-Hicks
• Jessicca Nicole Calhoun
• Ahyoka Calhoun
• Megan Leigh Hull
• Lively Crue Colindres
* denotes unsolved case
If you have any information connected to the six deaths that remain unsolved or know of any missing or murdered EBCI women whose names are not on the list, contact the Cherokee Indian Police Department at 828.359.6600.
Awareness through art
An exhibition of photography and sculptures bringing voice to the MMIW crisis will open Tuesday, Aug. 16, at Western Carolina University’s Bardo Arts Center.
“We Will Not Be Silenced: Standing for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” examines the issue and movement bringing awareness to it through the lens of artists from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Comanche Nation, Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and other Native American tribes.
The display will be open through Friday, Dec. 9, with a reception planned for 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3.