Indigenous women say media, not Gabby Petito, to blame for ignoring “epidemic of violence”

When Nicole Wagon’s daughter was missing, she did not receive a call to appear Hello america.

It wasn’t as if the disappearance of Jade Wagon, who was laughing and smiling, was not newsworthy: the 23-year-old mother had disappeared without a trace, precisely one year after one of her sisters, Jocelyn, 30, had been murdered at home. .

Thus, in Nicole Wagon embodied the spectacle of a distraught mother, still in mourning for the loss of one of her children, while organizing the search for another.

Yet it was a story that no one really wanted to tell.

“When Jade disappeared, no one from the media called me. And we mostly organized the search between ourselves, using Facebook and just searching,” Wagon said. The independent.

“It was only after Jade’s body was found two weeks later that one of the newspapers made contact.”

Lynnette Gray Bull came to Congress to call attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW)

(Gray Bull showed up to Congress)

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

On the one hand, she felt affection for Petito’s family and understood, at least to some extent, what the young woman’s mother must have felt when she had to declare her daughter missing.

But she couldn’t help but feel pain and anger, during the wall-to-wall media coverage of the missing white YouTuber case, in stark contrast to the interest – or the lack of interest – which the press has carried to its own fate. child.

Wagon, 51, is one of many Indigenous activists who have spoken out against what they claim is systemic discrimination that results in police and media spending a fraction of resources on missing women of color cases, compared to case of missing white women.

The glaring imbalance, something that was called “missing white woman syndrome” by the late black presenter Gwen Ifill in 2004, is all the more baffling, activists say, as women of color experience violence and disappear. at a much higher rate. than the white woman.

Among women of color, data suggests that Native American or Indigenous women disappear or experience violence the most. In Wyoming alone, at least 710 Native Americans went missing between 2011 and 2020, according to a report published by the Working Group on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples, established in 2019.

It revealed that 85% of those missing were children or youth and 57% were women. He revealed that although Native Americans make up less than three percent of the state’s population, they made up 21 percent of homicide victims.

He also calculated that the murder rate among native people was eight times higher than for whites and six times higher for native women than for white women.

Gabby Petito’s funeral

Yet this Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis is not limited to Wyoming. Activists across the United States claim that Native Americans are being killed at disproportionate rates and receive little media coverage.

Some go so far as to say that this is a crisis facing indigenous communities around the world.

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

Gray-Bull, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe who last year challenged Liz Cheney for Wyoming’s single seat in Congress to raise awareness of the violence, says data shows less than 20 percent of female cases Aboriginals who have disappeared over the past decade have received no media coverage.

“I think this is an epidemic because we are two percent of the population, yet three in four indigenous women experience some kind of violence in their lifetime,” says Gray Bull, who is Hunkpapa Lakota and Northern Arapaho and who runs an organization called Not Our Native Daughters.

“So when you consider that 70% of violence is committed by non-natives, it means that everyone has a role to play in what happens to our communities.

Does she think this is a case of outright racism?

“One of the reasons I would suggest would be systemic racism,” she said. “As aboriginal people, we already know that we face racism on a daily basis, and also the feeling of not being important. We understand that if we don’t have blonde hair or blue eyes, we can’t make the six o’clock headlines or the front page of the morning edition. These things don’t happen to us.

Jade Wagon went missing in the Wind River Preserve a year after her sister was murdered

(Nicole Wagon)

Gray-Bull says investigators understand the first 24 or 48 hours in the missing persons case is vital. And because the Petito case received such media coverage, it caused many members of the public to come up with advice or post it on social media such as Tik-Tok.

When Wyoming Gov. Republican Mark Gordon created the task force two years ago, he seemed to partly acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis.

“I think it is imperative to ensure the public safety of all citizens of Wyoming,” he said. “The Wind River Reservation operates under a separate criminal justice jurisdictional regime, but members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes 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 Victim Services Division, says the media had the capacity to cover cases such as Petito’s, as well as the large number of cases of missing ingenious women. .

At the same time, she is not surprised at the way the media has responded to Petito’s case. The study her task force released earlier this year found that even when cases of Indigenous women received media coverage, it often included language and detail that almost amounted to blaming the victim.

“Was I surprised by Gabby Petito’s cover?” No, I wasn’t, ”she says. “Because we know that’s what the media do. She is a beautiful young woman… And the amount of media attention helped us recover her body very quickly.

She adds, “What pleasantly surprised me is this pivot, with people saying, ‘Hey, we seem to pay a lot of attention when young blond women with blue eyes go missing, but why not when there is. brown hair, native to brown eyes that disappear ”. It is a pleasant surprise for someone who is leading this working group.

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

She wasn’t too worried when she returned home to northwest Montana, where her 20-year-old sister was about to start college. She reported her sister missing, but found the police had little interest.

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

She says authorities have defamed victims in this way for generations, even in the case of children who go missing.

So, as in the case of Nicole Wagon in Wyoming, Loring got down to 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 has always been very confident.

Does she still believe her sister is alive?

“This is such a difficult question for me to answer. Recently, some information we have received suggests that the best we can hope for is to bring him [remains] at home… But you still have hope.

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

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

As it stands, the case of his sister is presented in the current season real crime podcast, Up and gone, hosted by documentary filmmaker Payne Lindsey, who investigated the case. Loring says he “does a lot more than the police.”

Lindsey says he is struck by the bureaucratic fabric faced by Indigenous communities when such incidents occur – overlapping jurisdictions, different forces.

He says he believes police forces in Indigenous communities should be better funded so that they are better able to serve their communities.

Nicole Wagon, who now makes protecting her other three daughters a top priority, says she can’t help but conclude that racism plays a key role in the various responses when Petito went missing, compared to that of her own child, Jade, someone who has always been “laughing and laughing at the brightest things in life,” is gone.

She tries to use the publicity created by the Petito case to draw attention to the crisis in Wyoming and the pain endured by families like hers.

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

“They are human beings, my daughters have had lives. And no one ever has the right to take anyone’s life in any way. And my daughters just aren’t numbers. These are not statistics.

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