Native American Women Keep Turning Up Dead. Why Is Nothing Being Done?
Their stories are achingly similar. A young Native American woman goes to a house party, or drinks with friends, or just ventures out into the Montana night. She doesn’t come home. Law enforcement, after untangling questions of jurisdiction, conducts a search. Sometimes the bodies are recovered, the cause of death chalked up as “hypothermia.” Sometimes they’re never found at all.
The crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women (or MMIW) has plagued Native communities since the age of European colonization — and it continues to this day, especially among the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Nations of Big Horn County in Montana. Now the media has started to pay attention. A three-part documentary series premiering Feb. 3 on Showtime, Murder in Big Horn, places four recent cases in the context of the larger epidemic.
By turns enraging, inconclusive and damning, Murder in Big Horn tells a story with deep roots and few easy answers. It begins with a culture historically slaughtered, plundered and devalued by early white Americans who essentially trafficked Native women and robbed Native men of their identities as warriors and leaders. It encompasses ever-rising rates of drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence in Native communities and a sense of relative indifference by law enforcement. The phrase “another dead Indian” is used more than once here as a summary of how the non-Native world has viewed the MMIW epidemic.
Watch an Exclusive Clip From ‘Murder in Big Horn’:
The women highlighted here are 19-year-old Shacaiah Harding, who disappeared in July 2018 and was never found; 14-year-old Henny Scott, who vanished December 2018 and was found dead on the Northern Cheyenne reservation two weeks later; 18-year-old Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, who went missing August 2019 and was found dead five days later in a residential neighborhood in Hardin, Montana; and 16-year-old Selena Not Afraid, who disappeared January 2020 and was found dead near a rest area almost three weeks later. The women whose bodies were found were ruled dead from hypothermia. In layman’s terms, they froze to death. This determination doesn’t sit well with any of their families. Yes, they may have ultimately frozen to death. But how did they get there? Who might have been responsible? Conspiracy theories abound, largely a result of distrust and strained relations between Native and white communities that go back centuries. A thicket of jurisdictional questions — Was the body found on a reservation? Was the possible perpetrator Native? — further complicates matters, playing up poor communications between federal, local and Native law enforcement.
Directors Razelle Benally (an Oglala Lakota/Diné film MFA candidate at NYU and a writer on AMC’s Dark Winds) and Matthew Galkin alternate between true crime storytelling, advocacy and historical context, drilling down into each specific case and capturing the despair of families that want answers. They find grassroots experts, including Luella Brien, a veteran Native journalist who approaches the subject with clarity and compassion. “We can be the villain in our stories as well,” Brien says in the series, pointing out the likelihood that at least some of the culprits come from within. The frustration among families and friends comes not from the belief that all Natives are innocent, but from the difficulty of getting law enforcement to take action.
Some of the confluence between victims and the police is downright strange, and speaks to the insularity of the community. For instance, Selena Not Afraid’s father, Leroy Not Afraid, was accused of sexually abusing his daughter; a restraining order was issued. (He denies the charges in the series.) After his daughter turned up dead, he was named undersheriff of Big Horn County, at which point he recused himself from the investigation into Selena’s death. It’s not difficult to see where some of the conspiracy theories come from. “The problem in Big Horn County is that everybody is connected, and everybody is related to everybody else in one way or another,” Brien says. “So, somebody knows something.” But who? And what?
Selena Not Afraid’s disappearance and death raised the profile of the MMIW story. The news media, from the local to the international level, seemed to pay more attention than in the past, perhaps shamed by their underplaying of the previous cases. But the reality on the ground has changed very little. Sex trafficking remains a scourge, with nearby Interstate 90 considered a prime thoroughfare for predation. This, most believe, is what happened to Shacaiah Harding, the disappeared teen whose body was never found.
Television and movies have also begun taking notice. The ABC series Alaska Daily stars two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank and Secwépemc actress Grace Dove as Anchorage newspaper reporters who team up to investigate MMIW cold cases. Taylor Sheridan has tackled the MMIW epidemic, on his hit series Yellowstone and in his 2017 film Wind River, in which a hunter (played by Jeremy Renner) and an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) investigate the death of a young Native woman whose body is found on a snowy Wyoming reservation.
Murder in Big Horn, however, provides the most extensive TV treatment of the story to date. It’s an important, propulsive and brutally sad tale of the long-term effects of American colonialism and empire, and a dehumanization of Native peoples so thorough that many internalize it. “We don’t value ourselves anymore,” says Aaron Brien, Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, in the series. Murder in Big Horn is an urgent plea to recognize that life should never be cheap.
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