Kirk Siegler / NPR
In the summer of 2019, Molina Richards received a call that made her stomach sink. One of his best friend’s teenage daughters was missing in the Rosebud Reserve.
It took several days for the police to organize an official search as they continued to receive reports that she had been seen in various parts of the vast 1,900 square mile reserve in one of the most isolated parts of the 48 Lower states.
“All the leads, they haven’t found it,” said Richards, choking back tears as he recalled the trauma of that July day.
Richards ended up being part of a six-person ATV research team. They eventually found Waniyetu Rose Loves War whose English name was Autumn. She died at 19.
But Richards had already feared the worst.
“It’s always on your mind to grow up here,” she said.
No one knows how many indigenous people go missing or are murdered each year. There just isn’t a whole lot of comprehensive data. But in long neglected reserves like Rosebud, tribal members are convinced that the crisis is getting worse by the day.
Tribal governments are renewing pressure on federal and state authorities to devote more resources to the crisis, and some signs are starting to emerge.
“With the Waniyetu situation, I promised my friend that I wouldn’t let anyone forget her name,” Richards said.
“Like a pandemic”
To this end, Richards wrote and recently won a grant from the CARES Act funds made available to tribes to open a shelter for homeless women and adolescents on the reservation. The first of its kind will be staffed 24 hours a day. It will also be a much-needed refuge for people who otherwise walk in the cold all night, organizers said, moving from houses closed by gangs to parties in the city. drugs, swollen feet or much worse.
“At house parties I saw the disturbing side of the reserve, how bad things can turn out, how addiction takes over people’s lives, people sell their own children, sell them themselves, “said Colin Whirlwind Soldier, project manager for the new refuge.
Members of the tribe say prostitution, drug trafficking and domestic violence are rampant in Rosebud, where unemployment is high and communities have one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the country.
“I label it as a pandemic,” Richards said. “It’s everywhere, the murders have affected everyone here. It happens too much.”
Join the dots
That same alarm was sounded in the South Dakota Legislature this week by State Representative Peri Pourier, a Democrat who represents the Pine Ridge Reservation west of Rosebud. She convinced her fellow Republicans overwhelmingly to pass a bill that, if signed by Gov. Kristi Noem, would create a full-time Indigenous Missing Specialist in the state attorney general’s office.
Pourier said too many crimes go unresolved and perpetrators take advantage of gaps between multiple jurisdictions.
“Sometimes the dots are not related that this is a human trafficking problem,” Pourier said. “But the most vulnerable of our populations are indigenous women and children.”
Of the 109 people currently missing in South Dakota, 77 are believed to be indigenous. Last month alone, 19 indigenous people went missing, according to state figures.
“We hear these stories, but who is investigating? Sometimes natives don’t feel comfortable reporting this sort of thing to law enforcement,” Pourier said.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
Pourier and supporters of the bill are hopeful that there will soon be better data available to start connecting more of these dots. The new missing persons liaison would be tasked with coordinating with the FBI and various tribal law enforcement agencies to investigate unsolved crimes. The tribes of South Dakota are also pledging to help the state lobby the federal government for more resources.
For many, the emergency is long overdue.
In the Rosebud Reservation in the town of St. Francis, Sharon Swift, a representative of the tribal council, points to a row of barricaded houses where she says several women have gone missing in the past year. There have been two murders, she said, and a recent investigation found more than 100 homeless teenagers in the area.
“I would consider this a state of emergency in the Indian country, not only here on the Rosebud but everywhere,” Swift said.
But Swift was encouraged by how quickly the plans for the new refuge and shelter fell into place. There was even a procession as a mobile home was trucked in from the nearby town of Rosebud.
On a recent snowy morning, the temperature was below zero, a utility worker was installing the Internet. Staff were preparing to renovate the mobile home, and there were plans to build trails, a garden, and a sweat lodge once the snow melted.
Organizers hope its opening slated for later this month will be symbolic. In Lakota culture, they said, spring marks the start of the new year, a new beginning.