CASPER — Gov. Mark Gordon’s task force to address the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous people met for the first time Wednesday in Cheyenne. The meeting, which followed a panel on the topic Tuesday in Riverton, marked the Wyoming state government’s first institutional step to take on the issue.
Similar to a task force on human trafficking created several years ago, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force aims to understand an issue that has gained more attention but, to this point, has gone unaddressed.
Cara Chambers, the state director for the Division of Victim Services and chairwoman of both committees, said in an interview with the Star-Tribune that this week’s efforts resemble the beginnings seen in early conversations around human trafficking, where the state first began to understand how prevalent the issue was in Wyoming.
“We didn’t have data on human trafficking because we weren’t looking for it,” she said. “I think that may be the same situation here. ... You don’t see what you’re not looking for.”
Wednesday’s meeting was “quite foundational,” Chambers said, the agenda consisting primarily of introductions between the group’s eight members and the different elements each could bring to the greater discussion.
The team is now trying to identify the scope of the issue, which has been elusive to this point because of a lack of data or a comprehensive understanding of the problem. Government entities are only now beginning to get a sense of the scale needed to address the issues.
There are a number of facets to the conversation that will each need to be explored individually, Chambers said, such as improving understanding with law enforcement, compiling new and better data, and building interpersonal connections with families. The government also needs to collect information on who’s missing, what has been reported, and whose murders and disappearances have not been investigated.
“It’s tricky if there’s a disconnect between law enforcement and the victims on what has and hasn’t been reported, who has jurisdiction,” Chambers added. “... It’s a difficult situation when we’re dealing with the Indigenous population, just because of the way things have come to be.”
Just over a week since the task force was announced, the level of interest in the committee’s work from around the state has been significant, Chambers continued.
Since the first press release came out, Chambers has had over 42 people reach out to her office, with callers ranging from concerned citizens to people she has worked with in law enforcement or in the nonprofit community. Wednesday, some people drove as far as four hours away — from the reservation — to attend a 1-hour meeting.
“Everyone seems to have a story of someone they know that never went anywhere, and the number of girls and women — and even boys — who are victims of violent crime,” Chambers said. “There’s a real groundswell. I saw a similar eagerness to help with human trafficking, but this feels different. I feel a great, heavy responsibility to get this right.”
“We’re late to the game,” she added. “I know we’re late to the game. But I’m glad we’re here now.”
The increased focus on missing and murdered Indigenous people and potential solutions is welcome, as long as momentum continues to build, Eastern Shoshone Business Council member Karen Synder said at the Tuesday panel discussion, which Wyoming Public Radio moderated.
“I hope it’s just not a trend. The work needs to continue.”
The panel discussion at the Riverton branch of Fremont County Libraries — led by six Indigenous women, including Snyder — focused on the experience of being an Indigenous woman in Wyoming.
While the conversation touched on topics like raising children, reproductive rights, misrepresentations in film and media and the effect of generational trauma, it also included a discussion of successes and the rich culture and community.
The panelists, who included state lawmakers, tribal leaders, advocates and journalists, also talked about missing and murdered Indigenous people and how women can lead the charge in addressing issues in Indian Country.
Women are — and traditionally have been — at the center of Indigenous families and cultural life, which is why they can lead the search for solutions, panelists said.
“We’re the backbones of many of our families, and that gives us the ability to lead and speak on behalf of our people with a very strong voice,” Snyder said. “Our voice can make the change.”
And more women, like two Indigenous U.S. Congress members, are emerging as leaders in Indian Country, she said.
For 18-year-old Gabrielle St. Clair, a panelist and Eastern Shoshone citizen, those leaders — and her fellow panelists — inspire her want to advocate for Indigenous people.
“It gives us the kind of feeling that we’re ready for change as the new generation, and we’re not scared of that,” she said at the panel discussion. “I’m really thankful for role models like them.”
Lynnette Grey Bull, president of advocacy organization Not Our Native Daughter and member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, said the statistics showing the high number of sexual and domestic violence Indigenous people face motivates her to address the problem.
Gordon announced the creation of the task force after Grey Bull challenged him to address the problem at an awareness event this spring.
“This is something that should compel all of us, whether you’re Indigenous or not, to try and change,” she said at the panel event. “We’re worth fighting for.”