‘If we don’t have blonde hair we don’t get on the news’: Indigenous women say the media not Gabby Petito is to blame for ‘epidemic of violence’ being ignored

Campaigners not angry with family of Gabby Petito but wish their own daughters received some coverage, writes Andrew Buncombe

Monday 04 October 2021 14:42
<p>Ashley Loring HeavyRunner was just 20 when she disappeared in 2017</p>

Ashley Loring HeavyRunner was just 20 when she disappeared in 2017

When Nicole Wagon’s daughter went missing, she did not get a call to appear on Good Morning America.

It was not as though the disappearance of Jade Wagon, who laughed and smiled, was not newsworthy: the 23-year-old mother had vanished without trace, precisely a year after one of her sisters, Jocelyn, 30, had been murdered at home.

And so, in Nicole Wagon was embodied the spectacle of a distraught mother, still grieving the loss of one of her children, while organising the search for another.

Yet, it was a story that nobody really wanted to tell.

“When Jade disappeared, no-one from the media called me. And we mainly organised the search among ourselves, using Facebook, and just going out looking,” Wagon tells The Independent.

“It was only after Jade’s body was found two weeks later, that one of the papers got in touch.”

Lynnette Grey Bull ran for Congress to draw awareness to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW)

Last month, when Gabby Petito was reported missing, and said to have last been alive in Wyoming Grand Teton’s National Park, about 150 miles west of Wagon’s home on the Wind River Reservation, her emotions soared in different ways.

On one hand, she felt for Petito’s family, and understood, at least to some degree, how the young woman’s mother must have felt when she had to register her daughter as missing.

But she could also not help but feel pain and anger, over the wall-to-wall media coverage the case of the missing white YouTuber received, in stark contrast to the interest – or lack thereof – the press paid to the plight of her own child.

Wagon, 51, is one of a number of indigenous campaigners who have denounced what they allege is a systemic discrimination that results in both the police and the media dedicating a fraction of the resources to cases of women of colour who go missing, compared to cases of missing white women. 

The stark imbalance, something that was was termed “missing white woman syndrome” by the late Black broadcaster Gwen Ifill in 2004, is all the more confounding, say activists, because women of colour suffer violence, and go missing, at a far higher rate than white woman.

Among women of colour, data suggests that Native American or indigenous women, disappear or suffer violence the most. In Wyoming alone, at least 710 Native Americans went missing between 2011 to 2020, according to a report put out by the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force, established in 2019.

It found that 85 per cent of those reported missing were children or young people, and that 57 per cent were female. It found that even though Native Americans account for less than three per cent of the state’s population, they made up 21 per cent of homicide victims.

It also calculated the murder rate for indigenous people was eight times higher than for white people, and six times higher for indigenous women, compared to white women.

Funeral held for Gabby Petito

Yet, this crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women (MMIW), is not confined to Wyoming. Across the United States, campaigners say Native Americans are killed at disproportionate rates and receive little media coverage.

Some go as far as to say this is a crisis confronted by indigenous communities around the word.

Lynnette Grey-Bull, a member of the Wyoming taskforce, describes the crisis as nothing less than “an epidemic”.

Grey-Bull, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe who last year challenged Liz Cheney for Wyoming’s single at-large congressional seat in order to raise awareness about the violence, says data shows less than 20 per cent of cases of missing indigenous women over the past decade received any media coverage.

“I think this is an epidemic, because we make up two per cent of of the population, and yet three out of four indigenous women suffer some sort of violence during their lifetime,” says Grey Bull, who is Hunkpapa Lakota and Northern Arapaho and who heads an organisation called Not Our Native Daughters.

“Then, when you consider that 70 per of the violence is carried out by non-Natives, it means that everyone has a role to play in what is happening to our communities.”

Does she think this is case of straight up racism?

“One of the reasons I would offer up would be systemic racism,” she says. “As native people, we already know we come up against racism on a daily basis, and also a sense of not being important. We understand that if we don’t have blonde hair, or blue eyes, we don’t get to make it on the six o’clock news or front page of the morning edition. These things don’t happen for us.”

Jade Wagon went missing on the Wind River Reservation a year after her sister was murdered

Grey-Bull says that investigators understand the first 24 or 48 hours in missing persons case are vital. And because the Petito case received such huge coverage, it resulted in large members of the public coming in with tips, or posting them on social media such as Tik-Tok.

When Wyoming’s governor, Republican Mark Gordon, established the taskforce two years ago, he appeared to recognise in part the scale of the crisis.

“I believe it is imperative to ensure the public safety of all Wyoming citizens,” he said. “The Wind River Reservation operates under a separate criminal justice jurisdictional scheme – but Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal members are also citizens of Wyoming.”

The governor’s office said Gordon did not have time for an interview.

However, Cara Chambers, chair of the task force and director of the Wyoming’s division of victim services, says the media had the capacity to cover cases such as those of Petito, as well as the vast number of cases of  missing ingenious women.

At the same time, she is not surprised by the way the media responded to the case of Petito. The study her taskforce published earlier this year, highlighted that even when cases of indigenous women did receive media coverage, it often included language and details that almost amount to victim blaming.

“Was I surprised by the amount of coverage Gabby Petito got? No, I was not,” she says. “Because, we know this is what the media does. She’s a beautiful young woman … And the amount of media attention did help us to recover her body very quickly.”

She adds: “What I have been pleasantly surprised by is this pivot, with people saying ‘Hey, we seem to pay a lot of attention when blonde, blue-eyed young women go missing, but why not when there are brown-haired, brown eyed indigenous people who go missing’. That’s a pleasant surprise for someone who leads this task force.”

Ashley Heavyrunner Loring went missing in the summer of 2017. Her older sister, Kimberly Loring, was on holiday in Morocco when she last communicated by text with her.

She was not unduly worried when she returned to home to north-west Montana, where her sister, aged 20, was about to start college. She reported her sister as missing, but found the police had little interest.

Loring, 27, says that like many other indigenous women who turn to the police for help, was told her sister was probably “partying” and would eventually come home.

She says the authorities have been smearing victims in this way for generations, even in the cases of children who disappear.

So, like with the case of Nicole Wagon in Wyoming, Loring went about the task of trying to locate her sister, a member of the Blackfeet tribe.

“I think she ran into the wrong group of people,” she says from her current home in Portland, Oregon, saying her younger sister had always been very trusting.

Does she still believe her sister is alive?

“That is such a difficult question for me to answer. Recently, some information we’ve received suggests the best we can hope for is to bring her [remains] home…But you always keep hoping.”

She also wishes her sister’s case had received the same coverage as that of Gabby Petito.

“We need to tell everybody’s stories, not just one type of person or group or race.”

As it is, the case of her sister is featured in the current season of true crime podcast, Up and Vanished, hosted by documentary maker, Payne Lindsey, who has been investigating the case. Loring says he is “doing a lot more than the police are doing”.

Lindsey says he is struck by the web of bureaucracy confronting indigenous communities when such incidents happen – overlapping jurisdictions, different forces.

He says he believes the police forces of indigenous communities should be better funded so they are better able to serve their communities.

Nicole Wagon, who now makes protecting her three other daughters her first priority, says she cannot help but conclude that racism plays a key part in the different responses when Petito went missing, compared to that of her own child, Jade, someone who was always “laughing and giggling look at the brighter things of life”, disappeared.

She is trying to seize on the publicity created by the Petito case to draw attention to the crisis in Wyoming, and the pain endured by families such as hers.

“It’s a blessing in disguise because it has shed light on the state of Wyoming, and allowed the 710 indigenous voices be heard now,” she says.

“These are human beings, my daughters had lives. And nobody ever has the right to take anybody’s life in any way, shape or form. And my daughters are just not numbers. They’re not a statistic.”

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