For some time, the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous persons in Wyoming has been acknowledged as a significant problem facing members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes living on and outside of the Wind River Reservation.
Still, the depth of that problem and the disparities facing members of the tribe is not very well understood, with insufficient data and understanding of the issues holding back the conversation. New data released this month as part of a sweeping report by the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming, however, could help lay a foundation toward reducing the steep inequities facing Indigenous communities in Wyoming as lawmakers at the state and federal level devise legislative attempts to tackle the problem.
The disparities revealed by the report are significant. According to a WYSAC review of 20 years of data from the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, Indigenous people accounted for more than one-fifth of all of Wyoming’s homicide victims, despite representing less than 3% of the state’s population. That amounts to a homicide rate approximately eight times higher than that of whites. The report noted that the overall number of homicides was likely higher due, largely, to a lack of consistency in the way homicides have been reported over the past several decades.
“The analysis of Wyoming data combined with the past research efforts of others illustrates how concerns such as racial misclassification and the disaggregation of data have helped amplify the MMIP (missing and murdered Indigenous persons) crisis,” the report reads. “Striking inconsistencies in MMIP data have aided the creation of a faulty narrative that results in the underreporting of the scope of the MMIP epidemic.”
Indigenous persons also accounted for 14% of all missing persons reported in Wyoming, with one-fifth of those cases lasting 30 days or more. Only 11% of cases involving white people saw the person missing for 30 days or more.
“This report was really eye-opening, but I think it confirmed what a lot of us knew already that was happening out there,” Sen. Affie Ellis – a Cheyenne Republican and co-chair of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Affairs – said Wednesday during a presentation of the report to members of the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force.
The factors feeding into the high disparities between Indigenous persons and whites date back centuries, panelists said, and have only been exacerbated by policies that have failed to address the root of the issue from both a social and economic perspective. Though the Wyoming Legislature and Congress have sought to advance pieces of legislation to address some of the policy concerns – particularly around criminal jurisdiction – the roots of those disparities run much deeper.
“It is so tough for Indigenous people here with our trauma,” said Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Fort Washakie, who is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. “Historical trauma, generational trauma, it’s hard to heal a lot of wounds. And that has been passed on left and right with our history as Indigenous people, of this state and of this country.”
The report outlined numerous challenges to solving the problem including a longstanding distrust of the criminal justice system, convoluted jurisdictional boundaries and a lack of information about how investigations actually take place. The perceptions of Indigenous persons spurred by inaccurate or biased media coverage have helped exacerbate the problems and solutions, the report states.
In an extensive review of nearly 2,500 articles published Wyoming news outlets (including the Star-Tribune) regarding missing and murdered persons, researchers found that cases involving native people received coverage at a rate less than half that of white people. When they did receive coverage, Indigenous people were negatively portrayed nearly twice as high a rate as whites, helping to perpetuate negative perceptions of Indigenous victims in the public eye and “erase the lives and voices” of those individuals.
“The content analysis of the media coverage of murdered and missing people revealed strong racial and gender bias,” the report read. “This bias in media coverage contributes to systemic oppression and implicit bias in Wyoming. The violent descriptive language used, the focus on negative character framing, and the dearth of reports on Indigenous missing and murdered – especially on women and girls – substantiate the findings of others showing the disparity in news media coverage of Indigenous people.”
Some of the disparity in that coverage, said Sydney Allred, the northwestern regional representative for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, is by design, and that she has had numerous issues trying to get media coverage for Indigenous persons who go missing. And when that coverage comes, she said, it often comes too late to make a difference.
“It’s only after something really ugly happens that someone reaches out for an interview,” she said. “We won’t do it at that point. One thing we’ve found out is that ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ and we see that in local and state media. What that does is traumatize everybody all over again, and I do wonder if there could be a media sensitivity training over how to deal with these types of cases.”
Some are looking to reclaim that message. Also on the call were Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Jordan Dresser and Sophie Barksdale, who with production company Caldera Productions are working on a documentary project examining a side of the dialogue around missing and murdered Indigenous women on the reservation that has goes beyond the statistics, building on the conversation in a more constructive way.
“We want people to know and love these women as their families know and love these women, and as we’ve come to know and love these women,” said Barksdale.