Sat, Sep 15, 2018 - Page 9 News List

#NotInvisible: Why are Native American women vanishing?

Inadequate resources, indifference and a confusing jurisdictional maze have left many families searching for missing loved ones on their own

AP, VALIER, Montana

Illustration: Tania Chou

The searchers rummage through the abandoned trailer, flipping over a battered couch, unfurling a stained sheet, looking for clues. It is blistering hot and a grizzly bear lurking in the brush unleashes a menacing growl. But they cannot stop. Not when a loved one is still missing.

The group moves outside into knee-deep weeds, checking out a rusty garbage can, an old washing machine — and a surprise: bones.

Ashley HeavyRunner Loring, a 20-year-old member of the Blackfeet Nation, was last heard from around June 8 last year. Since then, her older sister, Kimberly, has been looking for her.

She has logged about 40 searches, with family from afar sometimes using Google Earth to guide her around closed roads. She has hiked in mountains, shouting her sister’s name. She has trekked through fields, gingerly stepping around snakes. She has trudged through snow, rain and mud, but she cannot cover the entire 607,030-hectare reservation, an expanse larger than Delaware.

“I’m the older sister. I need to do this,” 24-year-old Kimberly Loring said, swatting away bugs, her hair matted from the heat. “I don’t want to search until I’m 80, but if I have to, I will.”

Ashley Loring’s disappearance is one small chapter in the unsettling story of missing and murdered Native American women and girls. No one knows precisely how many there are because some cases go unreported, others are not documented thoroughly and there is not a specific government database tracking these cases.

However, one US senator with victims in her home state calls this an epidemic, a long-standing problem linked to inadequate resources, outright indifference and a confusing jurisdictional maze.

Now, in the era of #MeToo, this issue is gaining political traction as an expanding activist movement focuses on Native women — a population known to experience some of the nation’s highest rates of murder, sexual violence and domestic abuse.

“Just the fact we’re making policymakers acknowledge this is an issue that requires government response, that’s progress in itself,” said Annita Lucchesi, a cartographer and member of the Southern Cheyenne Tribe who is building a database of missing and murdered indigenous women in the US and Canada — a list of about 2,700 names so far.

As her endless hunt goes on, Ashley Loring’s sister is joined on this day by a cousin, Lissa, and four others, including a family friend armed with a rifle and pistols. They scour the trailer where two “no trespassing” signs are posted and a broken telescope looks out the kitchen window. One of Ashley Loring’s cousins lived here, and there are reports it was among the last places she was seen.

“We’re following every rumor there is, even if it sounds ridiculous,” Lissa Loring said.

This search is motivated, in part, by the family’s disappointment with the reservation police force — a common sentiment for many relatives of missing Native Americans.

Outside, the group stumbles upon something intriguing: the bones, one small and straight, the other larger and shaped like a saddle. It is enough to alert police, who respond in five squad cars, rumbling across the ragged field, kicking up clouds of dust. After studying the bones, one officer breaks the news: They are much too large for a human; they could belong to a deer.

There will be no breakthrough today. Tomorrow the searchers head to the mountains.

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