Oklahoma mulling steps to curb missing Native American women

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Published 10:05 pm PDT, Saturday, July 27, 2019
  • In this Tuesday, July, 9, 2019, photo, Rebecca Ponkilla, left, mother of Ida Beard, and Zina Deere, right, a sister of Beard, pose during an interview at Deere’s home in southeast Oklahoma City. Beard disappeared in the summer of 2015, at the age of 29. A member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, Beard is one of many Native American women and girls across the country who have vanished without a trace, The Oklahoman reported. Ida’s granddaughter, Aileen Beard, 1, from left, Deere’s sons, Ezekial, 6, and Nathaniel, 4, are also seen. (Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman via AP) less
    In this Tuesday, July, 9, 2019, photo, Rebecca Ponkilla, left, mother of Ida Beard, and Zina Deere, right, a sister of Beard, pose during an interview at Deere’s home in southeast Oklahoma City. Beard … more

    Photo: Jim Beckel, AP

Photo: Jim Beckel, AP
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In this Tuesday, July, 9, 2019, photo, Rebecca Ponkilla, left, mother of Ida Beard, and Zina Deere, right, a sister of Beard, pose during an interview at Deere’s home in southeast Oklahoma City. Beard disappeared in the summer of 2015, at the age of 29. A member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, Beard is one of many Native American women and girls across the country who have vanished without a trace, The Oklahoman reported. Ida’s granddaughter, Aileen Beard, 1, from left, Deere’s sons, Ezekial, 6, and Nathaniel, 4, are also seen. (Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman via AP) less
In this Tuesday, July, 9, 2019, photo, Rebecca Ponkilla, left, mother of Ida Beard, and Zina Deere, right, a sister of Beard, pose during an interview at Deere’s home in southeast Oklahoma City. Beard … more

Photo: Jim Beckel, AP

Oklahoma mulling steps to curb missing Native American women
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Rebecca Ponkilla still remembers the last moment she saw her daughter.

She hugged Ida Beard inside their El Reno home as her daughter’s friends waited for her outside.

Beard, 29, walked to a friend’s house just blocks away, but never returned home.

A member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, Beard is one of many Native American women and girls across the country who have vanished without a trace, The Oklahoman reported.

Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of missing or murdered Native American women, according to a report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. But the report doesn’t show a complete picture of the problem because of a widespread lack of comprehensive data.

As indigenous people have become increasingly more vocal about the alarming trend that has silently plagued the Native American community for decades, one Oklahoma lawmaker wants to see what the state can do to help.

When Beard didn’t make it home later on June 30, 2015, Ponkilla assumed her daughter was having fun with her friends. But then she began to worry.

“I had no idea, no idea where she was,” she said. “I still really can’t believe she’s gone, you know?”

Over the years, the El Reno police never received any substantial leads on Beard’s disappearance, said LaRenda Morgan, Beard’s cousin.

Beard’s family hasn’t given up. They recently hired a private investigator to look at the case, Morgan said.

But the uncertainty surrounding Beard’s disappearance and the lack of closure haunts her family, especially her younger sister, Zina Deere. The two were nearly inseparable, and Beard always looked after Deere.

Deere, 27, regrets she wasn’t with her sister that night.

“We would’ve helped each other,” she said. “But whatever happened to her, she was by herself.”

At the time of her disappearance, Beard’s children were ages 5, 6, 8 and 14. Her oldest daughter now has a child of her own who may never get to meet her grandmother.

“We won’t stop looking and waiting for her to come through the door until we know what really happened to her,” Ponkilla said through tears.

Beard’s family is not alone.

Linda “Lindy” Zotigh, also a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, was brutally killed in 2017 in Hammon.

A federal grand jury indicted Zotigh’s boyfriend, Tommy Dean Bullcoming, last year on first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder and other charges related to her death.

Bullcoming is accused of stabbing Zotigh, 55, which led to her death, “in an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner in that the offense involved torture and serious physical abuse,” according to court documents. The case is still ongoing.

Bullcoming killed Zotigh because she tried to leave him, said Imogene Herndon, Zotigh’s friend.

“He actually treated her pretty good,” Herndon said. “Since he seemed like such a kind, quiet man and was nice looking, you would never dream there was this demon in him.”

Authorities from the Roger Mills County sheriff’s office and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol found Zotigh’s body on Sept. 7, 2017, on tribal land about seven miles from where her mobile home had been set on fire — the catalyst for the search. Law enforcement detained Bullcoming the following day on an unrelated drug charge.

Herndon, 60, describing an incident where she previously was stalked by a man, said she hates how Native American women always seem to get blamed for the violence they face.

“They keep putting it on the women,” she said. “It’s these men they need to do something with.”

Native American and Alaska Native women face higher rates of violence than the general populace with more than four out of five indigenous women experiencing some type of violence in their lifetime, according to a study from the National Institute of Justice. That violence can include stalking, sexual violence or physical or psychological aggression by an intimate partner.

Overall, more than 1.5 million American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, which contributes to the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, according to the study.

Many of the women who do end up the victims of abduction or murder were previously assaulted, often by their partner, said Oklahoma Indian Legal Services attorney Jacintha Webster.

“There are domestic violence relationships that continue to escalate and a lot of times the most dangerous times of the relationship are when the individual attempts to report to the police, to leave, to get a divorce. … Statistics show that that’s when those events occur,” she said.

According to the urban institute report, 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported to the National Crime Information Center in 2016 alone.

Elizabeth Carr, senior native affairs adviser for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, said the high rate of violence indigenous women face stems from unresolved historical trauma — psychological wounding passed across generations — Native American tribes faced starting from when Europeans first began colonizing America.

“There is a direct link to historical trauma that we share with people,” Carr said. “The loss of our land, our culture, our people and all of the federal policies that targeted our people kind of altogether tether to that violence. That’s the underlying reason that we have an epidemic of violence in our communities.”

When that violence boils over, limited law enforcement and jurisdictional issues can complicate matters. Depending on where a crime is committed, different law enforcement agencies could take the lead on the case, said Carr, who also works for the StrongHearts Native Helpline.

And the lack of a centralized missing and murdered indigenous persons database that can be used across all law enforcement entities doesn’t help matters, she said.

“There’s a lot of miscommunication between the databases and then a misunderstanding of who is responsible for an individual who went missing in location X,” Carr said. “There’s a lot of jurisdictional confusion.”

Native American tribes also lack the authority to prosecute most of the crimes that occur on their land because federal law places most major crimes under federal jurisdiction, she said.

That’s part of the problem, Carr said.

Federal authorities have exclusive jurisdiction over sexual assault or sexual violence cases, but oftentimes, resources are so limited they can only pursue the most egregious of cases, she said. That leads to a vicious cycle where many perpetrators continue to do what they’re doing because they know they can get away with it, Carr said.

As other states are passing legislation and forming task forces to study this rampant issue among the Native American community, Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, is pushing to do the same in Oklahoma.

Dollens filed a request for an interim study to examine how cases of missing or murdered indigenous women are handled so law enforcement can ensure that despite complicated jurisdictional issues, cases don’t fall through the cracks. The study also would look at creating a statewide database on missing and murdered indigenous women.

Part of the problem stems from a confusion about which government entity — local, state, federal or tribal — should investigate the disappearance or murder of tribal members.

Lawmakers often propose legislation based on the information that emerges from interim studies.

“I want to be the catalyst to provide a platform for the many tribal citizens who have stories to share, and I want to listen and learn and help in any way that I can,” Dollens said.

Morgan, governmental affairs executive officer of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, informed Dollens about the issue by telling him about Beard’s disappearance.

Morgan hopes the study will result in better communication among law enforcement entities that can keep indigenous cases from slipping through the cracks.

“They should be communicating anytime a person is missing regardless of whether they’re native or non-native,” she said.

In recent years, state lawmakers in Arizona, Montana, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota have filed legislation to devote research and law enforcement resources to reduce the number of indigenous women who go missing.

Raven Word, spokeswoman for the Native Alliance Against Violence, called Dollens’ study proposal a first step. House Speaker Charles McCall will soon decide whether to grant Dollens’ request.

Oklahoma officials have taken longer to dive into this issue because the state has a more complicated landscape than some other states, Word said. The sheer number of tribes in Oklahoma — the state has nearly 40 federally recognized tribes — and the fact that they’re spread across the state makes it harder for the tribes to communicate and coordinate with one another.

Federal elected officials also are paying increased attention to the issue.

The Trump administration declared May 5 national Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day in order to raise awareness about the “crisis” of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.

U.S. Reps. Tom Cole, R-Moore, and Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, introduced this year the Not Invisible Act of 2019 to combat the epidemic of missing and murdered native people. Cole is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, and Mullin is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation.

The federal legislation, also introduced by two Native American congresswomen, would establish best practices for law enforcement to reduce the number of missing, murdered or trafficked Native Americans and form a task force on violent crime to make recommendations to federal law enforcement agencies.

Politicians have finally taken notice of the issue in recent years because the Native American community has been more vocal about demanding change, Word said. Tribal members are holding events at the state Capitol to raise awareness about missing and murdered women, she said.

“Even though they may not be able to pass laws or write bills, they still come together so they can be there for the families of the murdered or missing women,” she said. “Let’s print out posters, let’s hold marches, let’s hold rallies, let’s walk out in the street, let’s be loud.”

Along with insufficient data on missing and murdered indigenous women, there also is a lack of media coverage.

Of the 506 cases the urban institute studied, only 129 received media coverage. About 7% of the cases made up more than half the coverage.

Part of the reason there are so many missing indigenous women is that it’s “an unknown issue,” Webster said.

When Beard went missing, Morgan said she and several of her relatives reached out to media outlets to ask them to cover it. None did, she said.

More women could be found sooner if the media reported each time a Native American woman went missing, she said.

“If (people) knew someone was missing from that location, they could call in and give information,” Morgan said. “Nobody knows until afterward when bodies are found.”

And every time the family hears of a body found, they’re on “pins and needles” waiting to see whether it’s Beard, Morgan said.

Beard’s family has lost and found their strength over the years.

“We really fell into depression over the years where we would sleep all day, (we) wouldn’t get up to eat sometimes,” Deere said.

But now, Deere said she knows Beard wouldn’t want that for her family.

There are two things that keep her going.

“Hope and faith,” she said. “Because hope gives me some kind of joy, knowing that maybe she’ll come back. My faith is knowing what happened, happened. And I believe I’ll see her again.”

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Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by The Oklahoman.