Colorado could soon join other Mountain West states that are beginning to address the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Advocates say a new bill recently introduced in the statehouse is a crucial first step in tackling the long-simmering problem, one that Danielle SeeWalker has experienced firsthand.
Last year in Denver, SeeWalker’s aunt, Gertrude “Birdie” SeeWalker, was brutally attacked. A passerby found the 65-year-old Indigenous woman laying on the street nearly unconscious. She died two weeks later at a local hospital.
“My friends, relatives, we almost say it's not, 'What if it happens to us?' It's a matter of when it will happen to somebody that we know or ourselves because the rates are so high on this,” SeeWalker said.
More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime and more than half have endured sexual violence, according to federal data. Meanwhile, Indigenous women and girls face murder rates 10 times the national average.
The death of SeeWalker's aunt gave Danielle, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a devastating view of these realities.
“I sat with her in the hospital until she passed, saw her deteriorate very slowly from her injuries,” SeeWalker said. “And I almost wish it would have just been quicker for her because she did struggle for about a week to survive, and did not.”
The Denver artist and activist has been working with a coalition of tribal advocates to bring the crisis to lawmakers' attention. That work culminated with the introduction of a state Senate bill on March 8 that would create a state office tasked with raising awareness, coordinating investigative efforts across jurisdictions and providing support to families and community members.
The Colorado bill mirrors efforts underway in other parts of the region, including Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Utah, where legislation has successfully passed through statehouses and task forces have formed to shine light on the undercounted and unknown cases involving Indigenous people.
Such cases stand in stark contrast to the incident involving Gabby Petito, a white woman who disappeared in Wyoming last August. Sustained media attention and the subsequent focus from law enforcement resulted in authorities solving the case in four months and pinning the murder on her fiancé Brian Laundrie.
“It's going to be difficult for people to say that they support the Indigenous community, that they support the tribes in Colorado, and yet they don't support this bill,” said Colorado Sen. Jessie Danielson, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Last year Danielson wrote a successful bill that outlawed the use of Native American school mascots in Colorado. The Democrat points out that Native activists are leading the charge on this effort too.
“It's only proper to have the community driving the discussion and putting forward the ideas that they have for the solution to the problem that impacts them and their families and their communities,” she said.
That includes people like Raven Payment, a descendant of the Mohawk and Ojibwe nations. She worked with Danielson on the mascot bill and says focusing on this bill has further illuminated a crisis that speaks directly to her lived experiences.
“Walking through this world in predominantly non-Native spaces, I have those experiences of being a survivor of sexual assault and also just being targeted as kind of 'lesser than' just because I am a Native woman,” she said.
Petito’s case is a “glaring example of what should be done when someone goes missing,” Payment said.“We saw interagency coordination across state lines. We saw the public was really invested and they really cared about the well-being of this young woman.”
When Payment and other activists started digging into the number of Native American victims in Colorado, they noticed a pattern of misclassification — people with Native American last names, for example, who had not been classified as such. She took a list of more than 50 names of potentially Native people that had gone missing or were victims of unsolved homicides to law enforcement and was disappointed by the response. Their reaction, she said, was more or less, “Well, we're doing the best that we can and we think we're doing a great job. So sorry, we're not going to do anything else. What we're doing now is fine.”
She says that resistance helped spur the bill.
The crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people persists for multiple reasons. The bill lists jurisdictional issues and data-sharing problems among local, state, federal and tribal governments. The result is inaccurate reporting and the kind of limited data that Payment observed.
Colorado Rep. Leslie Herod, a co-sponsor, says Colorado has failed Indigenous victims and their families.
“Colorado needs this bill because for too long, missing and murdered Indigenous people have gone uncounted and unrecognized. There are many of our missing relatives that need to be brought home," Herod said.
Danielle SeeWalker, for her part, points out these violent incidents don’t just happen on reservations where jurisdictional challenges cloud reporting and data. Her aunt was attacked on the streets of Denver. Now she is reserving hope that her family will see justice. She says authorities recently identified a suspect in her aunt’s August 2021 killing.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.