There's A Crisis In Indian Country, But Who Is Paying Attention?
There’s a storm rolling in over the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. The clouds are low and dark as distant lightning cracks over a green prairie.
Wade Running Crane is starting to get wet.
“This is like a sign from Ashley that she’s here,” he said.
Ashley’s mother, Loxie Loring, is standing next to him.
“She liked this kind of weather,” she said, adding: “Ashley’s not gone because she wants to be gone. I know something happened to her.”
The Blackfoot Confederacy straddles the U.S and Canadian border. Nearly 20 women have been murdered or have gone missing from this relatively small community over the past decade.
Ashley Loring, 21, disappeared a year ago.
You can find pictures of her all over the reservation. They’re taped onto grocery store doors or in gas station windows.
In many of those photos, Ashley is holding a camera, wearing glasses and a warm, slight smile.
“She was outgoing,” Loxie Loring said. “She wasn’t scared of anything, And for how small she is, she was…”
Then Loxie holds back tears.
Almost everyone in Indian Country has a story like this. A niece, a cousin or an aunt who was taken violently and quickly from this world. An estimated 200 to 300 indigenous women go missing or are murdered every year in North America.
Those numbers could be higher but it’s unknown because the Federal Bureau of Investigation isn’t really tracking the numbers.
Ashley’s cousin, Ivan MacDonald, said that lack of data makes it really hard for those in Indian Country to explain this crisis to people in power.
“We already know this is an issue,” MacDonald said. “We already know this is a problem. We already know this is a crisis. And we don’t need statistics to sort of legitimize it for us. We need statistics to legitimize it for everyone that isn’t us.”
That’s where Annita Lucchesi comes in. She used to teach Ashley Loring at the local community college in Browning, Montana.
“She didn’t know how smart she was,” Lucchesi said. “She was always so happy whenever she got a good grade. ‘Really, really, I got an A?’ ‘Yes you did you’re smart.’”
Lucchesi is a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge in Canada. Back when she was working on her master’s thesis, she tried to find the total number of missing and murdered indigenous women in the U.S.
“After doing some Googling, I realized nobody has the right number,” she said.
Even if a local police report is filed some of those cases never make it to the FBI’s crime database. This is because there’s no requirement to file those reports nationally unless the person is a juvenile.
Lucchesi said this allows many native women to fall through the cracks.
“I would venture a guess that if we did have the data, it would show that native women are more disproportionately represented,” Lucchesi said.
So she’s creating her own database by filing public record requests with local law enforcement agencies. So far she’s documented more than two thousand cases across both the U.S. and Canada. Most occured over the last twenty years.
These women, she said, are more than just data points. They’re are loved ones.
“Loved ones that have just completely fallen off our radar,” she said. “That’s just unacceptable.”
Canada has an ongoing, multi-million dollar federal inquiry into the issue. In 2014, federal police there filed a comprehensive report on missing and murdered indigenous women.
But they’re running into problems updating those numbers each year. In part, because just like in the U.S., it’s not routine for local police departments to share that information.
In the U.S., Congress introduced Savanna’s Act last year. It requires an annual report on the number of missing and murdered indigenous women.
But since a senate committee hearing back in October, nothing’s happened.
Ashleys’ cousin, Ivan MacDonald, is getting tired:
“You know, it’s been 500 years since the onset of colonization but we’re still trying to legitimize that this is something, this is a crisis we’ve been experiencing,” he said.
Frustration about this crisis is mounting on the Blackfeet Reservation.
A large crowd calls for justice for Ashley Loring as they march down a main highway blocking traffic. Two teenage girls are at the helm riding horseback.
Ashley’s mom, Loxie Loring, is marching with them. She said Ashley loved riding horses and writing poetry. She was the spunky one of the bunch.
“You know how you look at your kids, one will be quiet, one is loud, you know what I mean? They all have their different personalities,” she said. “Ashley was very, she was a good girl. It’s just hard.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.