Crow Nation is a place where one could vanish – and many have
Bureaucratic loopholes, jurisdictional gaps, discrimination foster an epidemic of missing and murdered Native Americans.
Crow Agency, Montana – CJ Stewart’s cousin. BethYana Pease’s friend. Mary Amyette’s niece. Crow Nation is the sort of place where a person could vanish. And a place where many have.
Only a highway sign breaks the horizon of the wide, empty stretch of Interstate 90, marking the entrance to the sovereign Native American territory of the Crow tribe, and the line of demarcation between it and the rest of the US state of Montana. There are no lights on this portion of the road, no petrol stations, roadside attractions or coffee shops. This is Big Sky Country, with millions of hectares of seemingly unspoiled land extending in every direction across the tribal land.
The largest of Montana’s seven tribal lands, Crow territory spans 890,300 hectares (2.2 million acres) for a population fewer than 8,000 people (another 3,000 or so live off the reservation, but mostly nearby). The reservation includes seven small towns, three massive mountain ranges, two major rivers, dozens of tributaries and vast amounts of ranch ground.
Its neighbouring tribe, the Northern Cheyenne, is 179,680 hectares (444,000 acres), with about 11,000 members, a little less than half of whom who live on the reservation. The two share a border, and a contentious history. They also both struggle with proximity to two major cities and the crime that they attract, as well as bordering state and federal parkland.
Like each of the seven federally recognised Native American reservations in Montana, and the nine tribes that call them home, the Crow and Northern Cheyenne share centuries worth of challenges, including the mysterious disappearances and murders of many of their own.
“The Missing Murdered Indigenous Women (movement), it’s big in Canada and the United States,” said BethYana Pease, an alderwoman in Lodge Grass, in Crow, “but I took a step back and looked at my community, and my area of Montana, and the Crow reservation, and the Northern Cheyenne reservation, there’s just as much children, and men missing and murdered as women.”
No one knows how many Native Americans have gone missing in the United States and that is a large part of the problem.
Complicating matters is a complex tapestry of historical laws clashing with the demands of modern law enforcement, a dearth of accurate record-keeping and centuries-old discrimination that mean many who go missing are never found.
It is an epidemic impacting land-based tribes across the country and is particularly acute in Montana, where Native Americans are five times more likely to be reported missing than any other group in the state. Here in Crow Nation, disappearances from this sovereign territory have become so commonplace that nearly every member of the Crow tribe has a close friend or blood relative who has gone missing.
‘Every time a body is found, everyone holds their breath’
To hear Conrad “CJ” Stewart tell it, everyone in Crow Nation is related.
Credit the sparsely populated sovereign reservation roughly the size of Puerto Rico, or the tribe’s culture of adopting each other, and the occasional outsider, so that no one is ever without family. But the result is the same: a tight-knit, extended family that knows each other’s secrets. So, when a member of the tribe inexplicably vanishes without a trace, it rips a hole in the fabric of the community. When that disappearance is followed by another, and another, and another, the Crow are often forced to turn to outside law enforcement for help that doesn’t seem to be coming.
“Every time a body is found, everyone holds their breath,” said Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Democratic member of the Montana House of Representatives, who previously represented Senate District 21 – including Crow Agency – and is a cousin of CJ Stewart.
Another cousin of CJ Stewart, whom he calls his sister, Freda Knows His Gun, was last seen by her family in October 2016. People have reported seeing her in nearby Hardin, or in Billings, just outside the reservation’s western boundary. But those sightings are unconfirmed, as is the rumour that she took off to Washington state with a man named Mike.
Like many of the people who have gone missing from Crow, Freda didn’t leave a trace, but she did leave three children, who her mother, Barbara Susan Stewart, is raising.
At a graduation party for CJ Stewart’s son at the Crow Tribal Multipurpose Center in Crow Agency last year, Barbara Stewart wore her pain on her face. She doesn’t know what happened to Freda, but she knows one thing with a mother’s intuition – somewhere in the world, her daughter is still alive.
“I would know in my womb if she was dead,” Barbara said, her brow furrowed permanently by worry, both by the unanswered questions and by the strain of raising Freda’s children. Barbara suffered a head trauma some time ago and the weight of that, too, plays across her visage. “I don’t know if she’s mad at me, but it doesn’t matter. She needs to come back. Her children need her. I can’t give them what they need.”
Of the several hundred people gathered at the party that day, nearly everyone knew someone who has disappeared, many more than one, and many know several of the same.
Seven tribes, similar challenges
Pease, the alderwoman in Lodge Grass, and a tribal volunteer, can rattle off the names of the missing like the names of her own children.
There is her friend, Bonnie, “my homegirl”, she calls her, who went missing after a party one Friday night two years ago. Bonnie had six kids and a steady job and rarely went out more than one night a week so when she did not come home, her mother started reaching out to friends. Finally, someone who had been at the party told Bonnie’s mother that she had been left behind on the mountain.
“She told the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) officers, and nobody would go up there, so as a family, we went up there, and we found her within 45 minutes,” Pease said. “She was under this brush, and they followed foot tracks right to her. She was found all beat up and the cops said, she died of exposure. But her body was flayed out, her shirt was up, her shoes weren’t found, and it looked like someone dragged her there.” Because the cause of death was listed as exposure rather than foul play, the police closed the case.
There was also Roylynn Rides Horse, who was beaten, strangled and set on fire in Crow in April of 2016. She walked three kilometres (two miles) after the attack, according to local reports, and collapsed in a field where she lay for 14 hours before being found. She died two months later. Three people were convicted of charges related to her death but could offer no explanation of why they had attacked the young woman.
Pease spoke of Hanna “Bear” Harris, a 21-year old mother who had been raped and beaten to death, and whose partially clad body was found dumped on the rodeo grounds in Lame Deer, in the Northern Cheyenne reservation in 2013.
She was found four days after her death, by then already badly decomposed and covered with maggots. According to Pease, it was Hanna’s mother who tracked down the couple who had killed her daughter, asking friends for information, requesting footage from CCTV cameras where she had last been seen, and compiling the evidence to present to the police, who had repeatedly brushed off her attempts to report Hanna missing.
A community uproar forced the police to press charges after nine months, although they were not the charges the family expected. The accused had reportedly confessed the murder to a family member, however, prosecutors said the state of Hanna’s body hindered their ability to gather evidence. Ultimately, the man was sentenced to 10 years for dumping Hanna’s body, and his wife received 22 years for second-degree murder; charges, Pease believes, the community should not have had to fight so hard to get.
To raise awareness about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) movement, Pease has organised a series of protest marches, community-building initiatives and social media outreach. In May 2018, she organised a walk from the Northern Cheyenne land to the Crow land. A small group of protesters carried the flags of their tribes as they marched along a stretch of highway.
During the march, a group of about a dozen people – walkers, drivers, supporters – told similar stories, of men and women who had vanished, later found dead, with explanations that no one in the community believes, and justice that seems to come in whispers, if at all.
“It was eight years ago last Christmas,” Mary Amyette said in a voice that began conversationally, then held the slightest hint of a quiver as she spoke about the disappearance of her niece, Juliet Little Light, her partner, Teddy Little Light, and their son Wyatt in 2008. “She was going to the store [in Billings] and she called to ask if I needed anything. When we got off the phone, she said, ‘I love you, auntie. I’ll see you soon.’ And that was the last time I ever heard from her.”
A few days later, Juliet’s grandmother died, and when Juliet did not reappear for the funeral, the family reported her missing and began a search. They found the couple’s vehicle nine metres off the road in a remote part of the reservation, near a private ranch, a canyon and a river.
“It was in the middle of nowhere,” Amyette said. “The doors were open, and the wallet, and keys, and all their purchases were still in the car. The cops said it looked like they just got out and ran.”
Five months later, Juliet and Teddy’s bones were found, very near to where the family had set up the basecamp to search for them. Their cause of death was listed as exposure.
Officials said their remains had been hidden by the snow and were only exposed after it melted. Amyette doesn’t believe it, and suspects the remains were put there after all evidence had been destroyed.
Their baby, Wyatt, was never found.
‘We can’t rely on others’
Neither Wyatt’s name, nor that of Freda Knows His Gun, nor the others are in an official national database for missing indigenous people. That is because no such database exists.
This spring, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who is also a 2020 presidential candidate, signed Hanna’s Act, aimed at addressing some of the gaps in investigations into the state’s missing and murdered indigenous people.
The new law authorises the Montana Department of Justice to assist with the investigation of all missing persons cases, regardless of the age of the victim, and requires the agency to hire a missing persons specialist to oversee data collection, liaise with families, and work with other state and federal agencies.
In 2018, the US Senate designated May 5, Hanna “Bear” Harris’s birthday, as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. This year, the White House also recognised the day as Missing and Murdered Native American Indians and Alaskan Natives Awareness Day, and pledged to “capture tribal data in new data fields” in the national missing persons database.
But the legislation and designated days will not help those already missing.
“We had, in this country, a period of apartheid, if you will, that continues to linger,” said Montana State Attorney General Tim Fox, an adopted member of the Crow tribe.
There is no easy answer to why this is true.
Tribes are frequently hamstrung by a series of historical, federal and non-tribal local laws, often enacted under the guise of providing protections to tribes, which usually disempower their members and exploit their resources to the benefit of the non-tribal governments. This matrix of overlapping laws, enacted over centuries, leaves a conflicting legal framework that is nearly impossible to navigate.
The Treaty with the Crow Tribe of 1825 is one of the few friendship treaties between the US and a land-based tribe, and is widely interpreted to provide a NATO-like agreement of mutual defence, between the Crow tribe and the federal government. It is an agreement that the Crow have upheld from the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 to the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a treaty that some Crow members say should carry reciprocity, and that military-like support is what is needed to combat the issues on the reservation.
The Major Crimes Act, passed in 1885, grants jurisdiction to federal courts, exclusive of the states, over Native Americans who commit any of the listed offences, regardless of whether the victim is a Native American or non-Native American. Those offences include murder, manslaughter, rape, assault with intent to kill, burglary, among others. Before 1885, any crimes committed by a Native American against another Native American were tried in tribal court.
“The Major Crimes Act is what caused all of our problems,” said Sharon Stewart-Peregoy.
In 1924, following the first world war, in which many Native Americans fought alongside federal troops in Europe, the US government passed the Indian Citizenship Act. Proponents of the act claimed that Native Americans were people “without a country” and that citizenship would further assimilation.
Public Law 280, enacted in 1953, transferred law enforcement jurisdiction for crimes committed on tribal lands from the federal government to the state. In Montana, PL280 is “not mandatory” although the state has by turns enforced it or not, often on a reservation-by-reservation basis.
In Oliphant v Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that federally recognised tribes had no authority to criminally prosecute non-tribal offenders, even for crimes committed on reservations. This meant tribal lands offered a sort of free-for-all for the worst offenders, who, in many cases, even today, get away with murder.
The 2013 reauthorisation of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), signed into law six years ago, attempted to close some of these loopholes by allowing tribes that met specific conditions to prosecute some cases of domestic abuse and assault by non-tribal citizens.
We're not recognised in the eyes of humanity, as human.
The VAWA also comes with significant restrictions: Tribes cannot prosecute crimes against children, cases involving drugs or alcohol or crimes “occurring within the criminal justice system”. There was also early confusion about the federal definition of “statutory violence” and how that applied to the scope of what tribes could prosecute.
“That’s what really frustrates us,” CJ Stewart said. “The Violence Against Women Act gave tribal courts capabilities, but what they’ve done is they have to jump through so many hoops that I think the only [tribe] who has that capacity right now is the Salish.”
The VAWA also does not address several of the underlying issues with law enforcement on tribal lands, including the shortage of officers and the high costs of detaining offenders.
“That tells you right there how people probably look at us, and how people probably look at our kids, and that we’re just not human,” CJ Stewart said. “That we’re people they can just abuse and reuse anytime they want, and kill … it’s nothing to them. We’re not recognised in the eyes of humanity, as human.”
Pease added that “in a perfect world” she wished everyone who got killed was murdered in Billings or Hardin or outside the tribal lands.
“Because then people would go to jail. Something would happen. But if somebody gets killed here, nothing,” she said.
According to families, authorities also suggest that many missing indigenous people are simply leaving the reservations without telling anyone, but Pease and CJ Stewart rejected that argument.
“With Crow people and Cheyenne people, we’re very family oriented and even if we’re not related, we still take care of our own around here,” Pease said. “So, if I shun my son, he’s going to turn around and go to his grandma, or go to his auntie, and even if you don’t have that family base, you always have a friend’s mom who loves you just as much.”
CJ Stewart put it more bluntly: “If they leave without telling anybody, something happened.”
Pease also questioned where members of her community would go.
“They don’t know anybody. They don’t have the resources,” Pease said. “Maybe some of them did just go and commit suicide and get lost into the world. But I mean, they’re not just going to partner up with someone and run off.”
The FBI is responsible for investigating kidnappings and homicides that occur on tribal lands – two of the main reasons people vanish in Crow country and elsewhere – but proving someone has disappeared for those reasons and not just wandered off, or died of exposure from being left on a mountain, can be difficult without witnesses coming forward or immediate evidence suggesting foul play. Because of this, most people call the BIA first when someone goes missing, but that, too, comes with its own frustrations.
“Whenever anything happens, we call BIA. They don’t care,” Pease said. Her statement was echoed repeatedly by tribal members on multiple reservations in Montana. “Seventy-five percent of the time, they don’t give a s***. Twenty-five percent of the time, they lack officers. We are a 2.2-million-acre reservation. We have six officers. And they can’t be on shift all the time.”
Tribal members blame the lack of officers and the fact that they’re federal employees who will collect a salary and benefits whether they sit in their office in Billings or patrol the reservation. They cite the lack of motivation to respond to a call in the far reaches of the reservation, when a crime might be committed on one end but the jail is on the other, and the paperwork needs to be delivered to a third location. Most of the officers are in Billings and the impression among tribal members is that most are content to stay there.
Brandi Bends, a BIA officer based in Billings who is half Crow and half Cheyenne and whose family is from Lodge Grass, said the biggest barrier to solving the cases is a lack of law enforcement resources.
“So many of the problems facing the Crow and the Northern Cheyenne start in the home. The drug epidemic has changed life here and made policing more difficult. People on drugs are more erratic, more violent and more prone to resist,” Bends said.
“We do the best that we can do.”
This sense – that Native Americans can simply vanish, that law enforcement resources are not sufficient and witnesses will not come forward – causes a seeping despair among the Crow and consternation in the attorney general’s office.
To combat the epidemic, Fox, who is also running for governor, recently implemented a Missing Persons Indigenous Task Force, announced he will hire a Missing Persons Specialist to work with the task force, and held joint training for local, state, federal, and tribal law enforcement agencies aimed at greater collaboration on missing persons cases in Montana, with an emphasis on Native Americans.
“I can’t even imagine the pain and the fear that revolves around having a loved one who disappears and you don’t know why they’re gone or where they went,” Fox said. “Many of them have tragic outcomes. We do eventually locate people and they may be deceased.”
For Pease, finding people after they are deceased is not good enough.
‘We need hope’
Outsiders may ask how this can be fixed, as though there is a magic formula that will erase centuries of discrimination, as though enough funding, enough training, enough economic opportunities will end systemic violence and death. The members of the Crow are patient with such a question, more patient and tolerant of an outsider asking questions than anyone would expect, when outsiders asking questions has not always ended well for the tribe.
, it’s always going to be the same. No one cares. If we can show people that we care enough around here, and we can show people that we can help, they might think this isn’t a lost cause.”]
But they have the answers, every one: Allow the tribes to manage their own economic development. Remove restrictions on the tribes prosecuting non-tribal offenders. Honour the mutual-defence intention of the friendship treaty. Reaffirm tribal culture to counter the decades of shame that forced family separations, negative media depictions and sexual objectification of tribal women have wrought. Be a partner in finding solutions. And if not, get out of the way.
“We need hope,” CJ Stewart said. “There is no system to measure the agony that the tribes are going through with situations with this. I’m not depending on the government to save us, but just like the tribe, we need each other to save each other.”
For Pease, making people aware of the sheer magnitude of the problem is its own challenge. “I want the state, I want the county, I want federal, I want everybody to be aware that this problem is huge here, and it’s not just Northern Cheyenne and the Crow reservation. This happens in Hayes, this happens in Fort Peck, this happens in Browning.”
It also happens in land-based tribes throughout the country, down the wide, open stretches of highway that connects them, and beneath the same expansive sky.
“People think, this is the [reservation], it’s always going to be the same. No one cares,” Pease said. “If we can show people that we care enough around here, and we can show people that we can help, they might think this isn’t a lost cause.”