Gov. Mark Gordon made an impromptu announcement Friday on the University of Wyoming campus that he’ll convene a task force to address ways to combat the high rates of murdered and missing American Indian women in Wyoming.
Gordon’s surprise commitment came at the tail end of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls March, organized by the UW student group Keepers of the Fire, which aims to foster American Indian students’ cultures on campus.
The event was organized to raise awareness of the high rates of homicide and disappearances faced by American Indian women, including on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation.
Many Fremont County residents drove down to Laramie to participate in the march, including councilwomen of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho business councils.
“Every day, I wonder how our indigenous communities got to this point,” said Jazmine Wildcat, a sophomore at Riverton High School. “Why is it that, rather than playing outside and having a carefree life, our families now have to teach our young girls how not to become a statistic? Sometimes, an abusive relationship is accepted as the norm. … We did not survive the massacres, the boarding schools and the relocation to fall victim to another epidemic.”
Wildcat said there need to be both greater funding for policing in Indian country, in addition to greater awareness among tribal members and other Wyomingites.
“Appropriations of additional funding will help alleviate many of the pressures that our law enforcement face within Indian country,” she said. “It will help improve public safety. It will help serve victims of assault and domestic violence, and lead to more accurate reporting. This would be a huge step in the right direction. But money doesn’t solve everything. What we really need is for our people to care. We need our tribal leaders, our state leaders and our national leaders to encourage change and create policy and legislation to protect our indigenous women.”
Wildcat said there needs to be more legislation like Savanna’s Act, a federal bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives and would require annual consultations between U.S. attorneys and Indian tribes on sexual violence, training and technical assistance for tribal police, and new rules for reporting and sharing crime data and responding to violent crimes.
Both Gordon and UW President Laurie Nichols attended a lunch after the march at the Washakie Dining Center, where attendees told of their own personal experiences with the issue.
Avis Garcia, who’s earned three degrees from UW, was a 24-year-old student in Laramie when her own mother was murdered by her boyfriend.
Garcia, who is both Shoshone and Arapaho, said that trauma first threatened to derail her collegiate dreams before helping to inspire her to earn a doctorate in counselor education and supervision at the UW.
“My mother was my shining light throughout my childhood,” she said. “I am here because I refuse to let my trauma have the last word. I’m here because I will not let have a nightmare have more power than my dreams.”
During the event, Gordon signed a proclamation to declare May 5, 2019, as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Day for the state of Wyoming.
He did so in front of a banner of photos of Jocelyn Watt, a 30-year-old woman who was found shot dead, along with her boyfriend, at her Riverton home in January.
During the lunch, Gordon also made a policy commitment that wasn’t planned.
Moments before he signed the proclamation, Lynette Grey Bull urged him to sign an executive order establishing a task force to combat to high rates of missing and murdered women.
Gordon and state Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, quickly conferred during Grey Bull’s speech.
“Senator Ellis and I just talked about this, and we said, ‘Let’s do this.’ So we will,” Gordon told the crowd moments later.
On some reservations, Indian women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average.
American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.5 times as likely to experience violent crimes — and at least 2 times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes — compared to all other races according to the National Congress of American Indians.
More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime according to the National Institute of Justice.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the third leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women between 10 and 24 years of age and the fifth leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women between 25 and 34 years of age.
— A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jocelyn Watt was found dead in a Riverton motel room. According to her obituary, she died at home. The correction was made April 29.