North Dakota Law

Updates from the University of North Dakota School of Law.

“Silent Crisis” — Thousands of Missing and Murdered Native Americans: Professor Lewerenz is quoted

By some estimates, more than 4,000 Native Americans are missing or have been murdered. Murder is the number 3 cause of death of young indigenous women

Ron Claiborne

On April 21st, 2021, a man named HaHaax Veille took his three-year-old niece, Arden “Ardie” Pepion, to the Two Medicine area on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park in Montana where it borders the Blackfeet Native American reservation.

Veille, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, and his girlfriend were reported to have been practicing shooting when they noticed Ardie was no longer there. The little girl hasn’t been seen since, her name one more addition to the ledger of missing and murdered indigenous people in America — women and girls, men and boys.

How many Native American men, women and children have disappeared or been murdered is difficult to gauge. The Sovereign Bodies Institute’s data base of MMIW — missing and murdered Indigenous women — contained 4,754 cases in the U.S. and Canada as of August 2021.

A report by the U.S. Department of interior’s Office of Justice Services said, “Statistics show is that approximately 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native missing persons have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) throughout the U.S, and approximately 2,700 cases of Murder and Nonnegligent Homicide Offense have been reported to the Federal Government’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. In total, BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) estimates there are 4,200 missing and murdered cases that have gone unsolved.”

Most are female.

“For decades, Native American and Alaska Native communities have struggled with high rates of assault, abduction and murder of women,” the Interior Department report said. “Community advocates describe the crisis as a legacy of generations of government policies of forced removal, land seizures and violence inflicted on Native peoples.”

Violence against Native American women is shockingly common. In a 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice, more than 56 percent of Native women reported that they had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. The murder rate for indigenous women is ten times what it is for the general U.S. population. Murder is the third leading cause of death for Native American women and girls under the age of 20, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The perpetrators or suspects are often non-Natives — whether on reservations or in urban areas, where nearly three out of four Native Americans live.

Few of these cases make the news.

“They are the invisible people,” said John McGill, a veteran reporter for The Glacier Reporter newspaper in Browning, Montana.

I spoke to Lea Wetzel, a Blackfeet woman who is a member of the North Central Montana Human Trafficking and Missing and Murdered Indigenous People task force, about this. She told me she personally knows three people currently missing.

“One was murdered,” she said. “The other is quote-unquote missing, but there’s a lot of evidence that he was murdered. The third was a little girl and she’s missing. They are all from the Blackfeet nation.”

Sheri Hill, who lives in Browning and is involved in the MMIW movement, said the local police often fail to aggressively pursue cases involving missing women.

“They just put it out like, ‘Oh, she’s partying. She’ll come back in a few days,” she said. “That’s something that happens with all Native women who go missing. That we’re out partying and we’ll come back in a few days.”

Law enforcement jurisdiction on reservations can be complicated, even bewildering. Tribal police normally handle a local crime. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs may also get involved. If murder is suspected, the FBI usually steps in. Native Americans I spoke to on the Blackfeet reservation expressed deep distrust of the tribal police and skepticism about the FBI.

What really happened to the missing? Again, it’s hard to say. Some just ran away and left no trace, intentionally or not. Some go to the larger cities — in Montana, such as Billings or Great Falls — and disappear into the ranks of drug addicts or homeless. Some are believed to have been abducted by human traffickers or drug cartels. Some are murdered and their bodies eventually found. Some of the murdered are never found.

“Will we ever know the whole story on many of these?” McGill said. “The realistic answer is we probably won’t.”

There are high rates of violence against Native American women

On a hot, late summer afternoon, I met Drew Landry, a U.S. Agriculture Department extension agent at Browning Community College, at his office across the street from the college.


Landry is a rare non-Native resident of the Blackfeet reservation. He’s a white guy from Cajun country in Louisiana. Two years ago, he helped set up a website — — where people can report missing people. The website, in turn, passes its reports to local law enforcement.

“What that does is, they can ignore it, but we can make them look bad if they don’t do anything,” Landry explained. “They have been working with us.”

I moved my chair so I could see what Landry was pulling up on his computer screen. It was the latest roster of the missing.

“Usually, at any given time, 50 or 60 Native Americans are missing in the state of Montana,” he said. “There are a lot of cases, but usually the ones that don’t get solved have something to do with addiction.”

He scrolled down. It was a sad gallery of men, women and a few children. Landry pointed to one young man and said he had learned from his family earlier that day that they had found him. He was in Billings, homeless. That qualified as good news.

Photo credit: FBI website

One of the highest profile cases of a missing indigenous person was that of Ashley Loring Heavyrunner, a 20-year-old Blackfeet woman who disappeared on the reservation in June 2017. Ashley’s story garnered relatively extensive news coverage. There was an episode about her on an Amazon Prime show, Never Seen Again, the NBC news magazine Dateline reported on her, and there has been at least one documentary about it. Her sister, Kimberly, testified in 2019 before a Senate committee looking into the “silent crisis” of MMIW.

At the hearing in Washington, D.C., Kimberly pleaded, “I am asking you to recognize that Indigenous women matter, and the way our missing and murdered women cases are handled needs to be corrected. We will no longer be the invisible people of the United States.”

Photo credit: music video for Hey, Sister by Drew Landry

Ashley Loring Heavyrunner’s disappearance led Landry, who is also a country musician, to record a hauntingly elegiac song about the MMIW crisis called Hey, Sister. It ends with the lyrics:

I can still see your face when the sun goes down

And you smile right through the pain

I can still hear you laughing at sunset

When the high winds roll through the plains

The media attention that Ashley’s case has gotten was unusual. Thousands of other Native Americans vanish and, except for their grieving families and friends, few notice. The chances are that the victim will never be found. The case will never be solved. No one will be arrested and charged.

Still, there has been some progress. Savanna’s Act was enacted in 2020 to improve the federal response to missing and murdered indigenous people. Last year, the new U.S. Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, who is Native American, created a new Missing and Murdered Unit within the BIA to “put the full weight of the federal government into investigating these crimes,” according to the Interior Department announcement.

Sheri Hill says the younger generations of Native Americans are now willing to talk about the problem and to demand action.

“Every generation is breaking barriers,” she told me. “One of the barriers in my generation is not being silenced. We can speak out as Native Americans, but we’re only one percent of the population. So our voice is a whisper, if that. And, if it’s a windy day, you can’t hear it.”

Sheri Hill and her husband, Calvin, pastor of Browning United Methodist Church

In November, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that bears the shorthanded name, Brackeen v. Haaland which is challenging the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Law of 1978. There are legal complexities to the case beyond my ability to explain simply. But a key part of the law is that it states a preference in adoptive and foster placement that a Native American child goes to an extended family member first. If that’s not [possible, the child goes to a member of or a foster family approved by the child’s tribe, or to a home with another Native American family.

The law was passed to help redress the decades-long practice by states and foster care agencies of placing Native children with non-Native families.

“A part of the very process was to put Indian children with non-Indian families,” said Dan Lewerenz, assistant professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law and contract attorney for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). “That was the goal. When Congress enacted ICWA, Congress said that can’t be the way you operate if there are Indian families available.”

Prior to ICWA, an astonishing 25% to 35% of Native American children were placed with adoptive parents, or in foster homes or institutions. Roughly 90% of those children who were put in adoptive or foster families went to non-Native families, according to two studies by the Association of American Indian Affairs that were submitted to the Senate when the legislation was first consideration.

The plaintiffs in Brackeen include three non-Native families who are seeking to adopt Native American children, and the attorney general of Texas. They argue that the law is unconstitutional because it discriminates on the basis of race. The supporters of ICWA say Native Americans are not a race but members of sovereign nations.

At stake in the fight before the Supreme Court is not just the fate of Native children, but possibly tribal sovereignty itself, according to NARF.

Erin Dougherty Lynch, a NARF senior staff attorney, said, “(They) aim to simultaneously exploit Native children while undermining the law that protects them. If they succeed in undermining the entire framework of federal-tribal protections for Native children, it could negatively impact Native families and tribes for generations.”

(The amicus briefs in support of ICWA in Brackeen v. Haaland can be read at

Cover photo: Bureau of Indian Affairs website

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