By Marit Gookin

Staff Writer

A prayer was held in the 789 Smokeshop parking lot before the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls March last year in Riverton. Photo by Carl Cote

“We cannot continually sexualize a group of people, and objectify them, and then wonder why they are the number one targets for sexual assault,” commented Jordon Lankford from Everyday Native, a free online educational resource, during her presentation at the Native American Education Conference held at Central Wyoming College earlier this month. 

Sexual assault isn’t the only crime that Native American populations experience at disproportionate rates; according to a study conducted by the University of Wyoming, Indigenous people in Wyoming are eight times more likely to be the victim of a homicide than their White peers. Native Americans also go missing at high rates, and are more likely to be missing for longer, as well as facing high rates of other violent crimes such as domestic violence. 

“You don’t want your loved one to be a statistic – they do have a name – but we need to embrace that we do have an epidemic,” remarked Nicole Wagon, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. Throughout the state of Wyoming and in many other states with comparatively high Native American populations, activists have been speaking out about this issue. Wagon, who lost two daughters in a short span of time, has been at the forefront of Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) movement for years. 

One of Wagon’s current focuses is raising awareness that this epidemic doesn’t only impact Native women, but that Native American men also are more likely to go missing or be the victim of a violent crime. She has been hard at work organizing a Red Dress/Red Shirt Dance as part of this upcoming weekend’s Northern Arapaho PowWow, during which both male and female dancers will dance to honor and raise awareness for those who have gone missing or have been murdered. 

For Wagon, like many activists, the work being put into the movement isn’t just about helping solve current or past cases. She described an interaction with now-outgoing Little Princess Rylan DaleRose Sather; at a powwow, she and a group of other adult women were speaking when Sather walked into the room wearing a red jingle dress. Wagon paused her conversation to ask Sather about the dress, and Sather explained that she was wearing red – the color of the MMIP movement – in honor of her mother, who had been murdered. 

“That’s what it’s about, that little voice,” Wagon observed. “All the work that we’re doing [is about] how do we make it safe for them? She’s only seven years old.” 

“This is heartbreaking work, but it really gives me hope when I see kids start being empowered,” remarked Charlene Sleeper, an activist and organizer from Montana whose work recently brought her to the Wind River Reservation. “That’s what makes it worth it in the end … We get little glimpses of hope.” 

The 75th annual Northern Arapaho PowWow will be held at the powwow grounds in Arapahoe on September 1-3. The Red Dress/Red Shirt Dance is slated to be part of Friday’s grand entry, starting at 6 p.m.