Not forgotten

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RIVERTON, Wyo. — More than 100 people, most clad in red, marched down Federal Boulevard in Riverton Wednesday afternoon in a rally to commemorate Indigenous people who have been murdered or vanished.

Participants shared stories of friends and family members from the Wind River Indian Reservation or elsewhere who disappeared or were murdered. Many held photos of Jocelyn Watt and Jade Wagon — Indigenous sisters who died in separate incidents in Fremont County in the last two years. Watt’s January 2019 murder in downtown Riverton, in which her partner Rudy Perez was also killed, remains unsolved.

May 5 has been recognized as a national day of awareness for the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous persons. Gov. Mark Gordon made a similar proclamation for Wyoming Wednesday as a way to “highlight the need for ongoing grassroots advocacy and changes to laws and policies to address the issue,” according to a press release.

Wyoming created a Missing and Murdered Indigenous People task force in 2019 to examine the scope of the problem and recommend ways to address it. The task force in January released a statewide report with its findings.

The report found that while Indigenous people account for less than 3% of Wyoming’s population, they experience violence, homicide, sexual assault and are reported missing at disproportionate rates — with homicide rates eight times that of white people. Indigenous victims represented 21% of the total homicide victims in Wyoming between 2000 and 2020, according to the report.

The report identified barriers to reporting on and responding to the issue, and recommended the state develop consistent protocols and data collection to inform law enforcement and families, among other things.

Wednesday’s rally ended in Riverton City Park, where several people spoke.

People gathered in Riverton’s City Park following a march down Federal Boulevard to commemorate missing and murdered Indigenous people May 5, 2021. Photo: BJ Klophaus

“There are a number of resources in this community that are trying to stop the bleeding, but again you can’t put a Band-Aid on a bullet hole so we know there’s a lot of work to do,” said Sydney Allen, executive director of Fremont County Alliance Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “We know that a lot of families are suffering and unfortunately we’re seeing it more and more every day …

“We gotta keep standing up, we gotta keep saying these names, we gotta keep remembering the people and the families and the loss, because it is not just a number,” Allen said.

Nicole Wagon, the mother of Watt and Jade Wagon, urged several actions, such as filling a local Bureau of Indian Affairs victim advocate position. The task force, she said, should not only talk with government officials. “They need to talk with tribal members that are living this nightmare and hear what they are saying,” Wagon said.

Letara LeBeau, a Northern Arapaho tribal member who sits on Wyoming’s MMIP task force, explained the significance of the color red in a press release published by news site County10. “In various tribes, red is known to be the only color spirits see. It is hoped that by wearing red, we can call back the missing spirits of our women and children so we can lay them to rest.”

According to the state report, 10 Wyoming Indigenous people, three females and seven males, are currently listed as missing.

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