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'It's Got To Stop': Native Americans Say Crimes Against Them Are Not Taken Seriously

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Native Americans make up less than 2% of the national population. But last year, they accounted for an estimated 5% of all missing persons cases. Native people have long complained that these crimes are not taken seriously, especially when they happen to women. Yellowstone Public Radio's Olivia Reingold takes us to the Crow Reservation in Montana, which has been especially hard-hit.

OLIVIA REINGOLD, BYLINE: On the first day of the new year, a 16-year-old from the Crow Nation went missing. Crews started looking for Selena Not Afraid that night. Nineteen days later, the family's worst fears came true. She was found dead in a field near Interstate 90.

ANNIE LEIDER: We were hoping to get our Selena back, you know, alive. But it didn't turn out that way. And it's got to stop sometime. It's got to stop. We just want justice for our girls, our people.

REINGOLD: Annie Leider is Not Afraid's aunt. Leider and others are upset not just that this happened to their relative, but that this is happening throughout Indian country.

LEIDER: There's just too many, especially the young ones. Just the past few months, we've been just hearing - almost every other day, we hear about someone missing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCRIBBLING)

REINGOLD: They've been meeting weekly at the tribe's former casino to talk about new leads into Not Afraid's disappearance.

LEIDER: And then the next one was what? (Non-English language spoken).

REINGOLD: The local county sheriff's office in charge of the ongoing investigation says there's no evidence of foul play. They think Not Afraid just wandered off after a night of partying, her friends drove away and she froze to death. Some family members don't buy it. And skepticism of law enforcement by native people is common in missing persons cases. They complain they're not taken seriously and investigations don't get the same resources as white people's disappearances in cities.

Kurt Alme is the U.S. attorney for Montana.

KURT ALME: The jurisdictional complication around these cases is something we all recognize needs to be addressed.

REINGOLD: Federal law enforcement doesn't have jurisdiction in Not Afraid's case because she wasn't on tribal land when she went missing. That's the case for about half of missing native women, according to one database. But Alme says the feds were still able to help out.

ALME: In this case, as soon as Big Horn County Sheriff's Office requested assistance, the FBI brought in a child abduction response team to help organize the search efforts.

REINGOLD: The Department of Justice also deployed one of its 11 new coordinators whose job is to help connect local law enforcement with federal resources. Breaking down jurisdictional barriers is one goal of the White House's new task force on missing and murdered native people, Operation Lady Justice. But that's just one issue. Annita Lucchesi is a leading researcher on missing and murdered women.

ANNITA LUCCHESI: I don't think the idea of a task force in itself is wrong or bad, but it needs the right people, and it needs the right objectives.

REINGOLD: The task force is composed of officials from federal agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Violence Against Women. Four out of seven members are citizens of tribal nations, but Lucchesi says that's not enough. She wants victims' families and tribal politicians in leadership roles, not just called upon for listening sessions. She says the task force's objectives need work, too.

LUCCHESI: A vague statement saying, well, we're going to enhance best practices and protocols and we're going to come up with new data collection strategies - like, that sounds great in theory, but what does that really mean?

REINGOLD: She says she doesn't trust the agencies that helped create this problem to solve it. Trump's task force plans to consult with tribal governments across the country over the next two years. Meanwhile, communities across Indian Country continue holding vigils and mourning their losses.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: As we forgive those who trespass against us.

REINGOLD: About a hundred people gathered atop a cliff near the Billings Airport shortly after Selena Not Afraid's body was found. Girls holding pictures of Not Afraid arranged candles in the shape of a heart.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What are they making?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A pretty heart, baby.

REINGOLD: People with red handprints over their faces, a symbol for missing and murdered Indigenous women, hung their heads as they prayed. Kim Kelch, who's dating a member of the Not Afraid family, arranged the event.

KIM KELCH: I feel like us native people don't think anybody cares. They don't think anybody will notice. They don't think anybody will come looking. They don't think anybody will do anything about it. And - but you know what? We're going to fight. We're going to go to war. We ain't going to give up until we are noticed.

REINGOLD: Kelch says this is a fight for equality that could take generations.

For NPR News, I'm Olivia Reingold in Billings, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.