BILLINGS – It took 10 days when Gabby Petito went missing to find her body in a secluded camping area in the Wyoming wilderness. It is lightning speed in the world of missing persons cases. It is also a painful reminder to the indigenous people of Wyoming.
Petito, a 22-year-old white woman, was found righteous 70 miles from the western limit of the state’s only reserve, Wind River, where Indigenous residents continue to face a growing epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP).
“It happens every day to young Aboriginal women and men. It happens every day,” said Jordan Dresser, president of the Northern Arapaho tribe of Wyoming. âBut he doesn’t get the cover that she got. As Native people, we’re still seen as invisible. We’re still seen as less than.â
Dresser sees firsthand what MMIP cases do to an Indigenous community.
He was elected President of the Wind River Reservation Tribe in December 2020 and has been a key liaison for the Wyoming Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force, established in 2019.
This working group published a report earlier this year showing the deep roots of the crisis. Over the past decade, 710 indigenous people have been reported missing. Fifty percent were not found in a week. One in five was still missing after a month.
The statistics on homicides are more glaring.
Indigenous people make up less than 3% of Wyoming’s total population, but 21% of homicides in the state.
The main culprit, according to the report? Blanket.
âWe really saw this theme of Indigenous women overshadowed and not reported,â said task force chair Cara Chambers. âEven when they were reported, it was usually after a body had been found or a crime had taken place. And it was usually framed in a very negative way – a graphic description of the crime – when their White counterparts were more likely to have an article written while they were still missing to help with research.
“It’s usually, ‘They’re drinking, they’re going to come. They’re doing drugs. They’re going to come. They’re with their boyfriend / girlfriend. They’re going to come,” said Dresser. “When someone is missing, it must be reported immediately and there must be a quick response.”
Battles of jurisdiction within law enforcement agencies also play an important role.
âThere is friction not only in Wind River, but in most of the country’s reserves,â Dresser said of the split between local BIA agencies and federal resources. âWhen a major crime is committed on the reserve, it’s automatically a federal matter, so the FBI gets involved. But that creates laxity.
“The first 48 hours are very crucial, not only to locate the person but their attacker. This is why so many women love Ashley loring and Jerome Charlo (two members of the Blackfeet tribe reported missing in Montana) go missing, and the people who did things to them are never found and brought to justice. “
Wyoming does not have an MMIP database.
Montana was launched this summer but is still in its infancy in a state that currently has 203 missing people, and Census statistics show us that more than a quarter of them are indigenous.
Dresser says regional cooperation is one of the keys to turning the tide.
“Whether it’s Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, Utah – if we create a coalition about someone who is missing and says, ‘These are the states close by. one another. Be on alert, ââ Dresser mentioned.
Until then, the Petito case was showing everyone the best tool in the world right now.
âThe exploitation of social media, from what I’ve been able to determine, has really led to some crucial leads,â Chambers said. “When you have a national spotlight on you, everyone wants to rise to the occasion.”
It doesn’t matter who this opportunity is for.
KTVQ’s Casey Conlon first reported this story.