Report says indigenous people make up 21% of murder victims

CHEYENNE — Over the last two decades, Indigenous people have made up 21 percent of homicides in Wyoming, despite accounting for only about 2.7 percent of the state’s population, according to a new report discussed this week.

The state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force, which Gov. Mark Gordon first announced in April 2019, met Wednesday to discuss the finding of its statewide report, released last month. Emily Grant, a researcher with the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center who helped conduct the study, said the data for the report came from an array of crime databases spanning the last 20 years.

“Compared to white people in the state, the (homicide) rate is eight times higher for Indigenous people, and six times higher for Indigenous females than white females (between 2010 and 2019),” Grant said during the virtual discussion.

Grant also noted other racial disparities highlighted in the report, which was funded by the Wyoming Division of Victim Services. Among those reported missing between 2011 and 2020 in Wyoming, Indigenous people accounted for 15 percent.

Among those Indigenous people, roughly 21 percent were missing for 30 days or more, compared to only 8 percent of cases involving white people gone missing.

The report also included findings based on interviews with several key stakeholders involved in the state’s tribal affairs. Three major barriers to solving those cases emerged during discussions: a lack of trust in law enforcement, no single point of contact to navigate the varying jurisdictions and a lack of information about ongoing investigations.

“(Stakeholders) voiced the need for improved protocols and data systems,” Grant said. “It’s important to develop some consistent protocols for (missing and murdered Indigenous people) to inform both law enforcement and families, paying particular attention to documenting tribal affiliation and official records.”

She said a designated Indigenous advocacy position, someone who could help families navigate an investigation process from start to finish, was another key recommendation based on the interviews. The final recommendation was to raise community awareness about the issues highlighted in the report.

The report also highlighted missteps made by media outlets across the state in their reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous people. Among nearly 500 articles written on homicides in Wyoming in the last two decades, newspapers reported on only 30 percent of the 105 Indigenous homicide victims, compared to 51 percent of the 332 white homicide victims. Indigenous female homicide victims were the least likely to have newspaper coverage, according to the report.

For articles focused on Indigenous homicide victims, disparities emerged in the way those people were described compared to white people. Articles on cases involving Indigenous people were more likely to include violent descriptions, negative character framing and essentialism.

“Essentialism reduces the individual to nothing more than a victim,” Grant explained. “They lack any kind of personal information – for example, referring to the victim as a body in a ditch. The theme was found in articles about Indigenous people, but it wasn’t found in any of the articles about white people.”

The disparities in treatment also emerged in news articles about missing people in Wyoming, according to the report.

“White people were more likely to have an article written while they were still missing (76 percent of articles on white missing people, compared to 42 percent of articles on Indigenous missing people),” the report states. “Indigenous people were more likely to have an article written about them being missing only after they were found dead (57 percent of articles about Indigenous missing people, compared to 0 percent of articles about white missing people).”

True homicide and missing rates among Indigenous people could be even higher than the data suggests, according to the report, due to limited or missing statistics. Grant reiterated the report was simply an initial inquiry into an issue that will require further investigation.

“We have to acknowledge that there is a lot more ways to assess the data that we have and a lot more data that could be collected in the future, but this is a first step in assessing the situation,” Grant said.

Others agreed that the report provided a look at issues deserving deeper dives. Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Riverton, who serves on the Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Affairs, said it’s up to Indigenous leaders “to keep the momentum going” to solve these issues.

“We could do another report, and … at the end of the day, the bigger picture is – how do we get better cooperation among jurisdictions? How do we communicate that better to prevent this tragedy of (missing and murdered Indigenous persons)?” said Clifford, who is one of two Native women currently serving in the Legislature. “We’re here all for one goal: to address this epidemic, so no loved one can go missing or murdered again.”