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State Seeks New Ways To Reduce Crimes Against Native Women

Melodie Edwards

It's been seven years now since Dawn Day was found floating in a Fremont County lake by a passing boat. But, still, every day, her dad Gregory Day and her aunt Madeleine Day still miss her laughter.

"She was crazy," recalled Madeleine.

"Crazy in a good way, huh?" Gregory said. "[She'd] make you laugh."

Madeleine nodded, sitting next to him on the couch in his living room. Through the screen door, a breeze blows through cottonwood trees. "That's what she did. She always wanted everybody to be happy."

Madeleine said it was that desire to always make people happy that kept Dawn from leaving an abusive boyfriend.

"That puppy dog syndrome," Madeleine said. "Like, I can fix you. You can't. How're you going to fix somebody that strangles you, throws you out of a car, that throws you in a fire? That's not love. You can't fix him."

It's a message Madeleine tried to express the last time she saw Dawn.

"When we saw her, she had a black eye," she remembered. "We were trying to make her come with us. She's like, 'I'll be alright, I'll be alright.' That was the last time we saw her."

The autopsy called Dawn Day's death undetermined because there was more than one possible cause. But Gregory and Madeleine said they know what killed her, and it wasn't drowning.

"There was no water in her lungs, her lips weren't blue," said Gregory. "She was just beaten to death."

And so, as in many Native women's deaths, Dawn Day's was never classified as a homicide. But Gregory and Madeleine say law enforcement should have interviewed more people, like a neighbor who lived upstairs from Dawn and her boyfriend. Madeleine ran into the woman when she went to pick up Dawn's belongings.

"[The neighbor] was hysterical," Madeleine said. "She heard her screaming and pounding and beating and was scared, and said she called the police, and nobody came. And she said she was scared to leave her apartment."

In the end, no one was charged in the case, but it's never been closed. Madeleine and Gregory continue to run into Dawn's boyfriend in the community. Now Madeleine is worried her own daughter will be next since she too is in an abusive relationship.

"[If my daughter] don't get some kind of help, she's going to be laying right next to my niece."

Credit Melodie Edwards
Gregory Day stands with the placard he made for his daughter for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's march.

Lynette Grey Bull is the director of Not Our Native Daughters, a group working to educate the public about solutions to violence in Indian Country. Sitting across from them on the couch, Grey Bull told Madeleine and Gregory Day that she has very personal reasons for doing this work. She's had her own experiences with abusive men.

"There was a horrible day in my life where he put a gun to my head and put a few bullets in there and spun the wheel and pulled the trigger," Grey Bull said. She paused to wipe away tears. Madeleine's grandchildren played in the other room. "And I remember praying in my head, asking God if he let me out of here I will never come back to him ever again. And that's what I did."

Grey Bull said her story and Dawn Day's aren't uncommon. At a high school on the Wind River Reservation recently, she said, "When I asked the audience how many had either missing or murdered family members in their own family, I would say at least 40 percent of the hands in the room went up."

Such experiences prompted Grey Bull to speak up during the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's march in April. Grey Bull addressed Gov. Mark Gordon directly, asking him to take action. Then Gordon got up.

"Thank you, Lynette, for your comment, about [how] we need to do a task force," the governor said. "Senator Ellis and I just talked [and decided], let's do this. So we will." The audience broke into applause.

Gordon was referring to Cheyenne Senator and Navajo tribal member Affie Ellis, who worked on a 2015 congressional report called "A Roadmap For Making Native America Safer." She said a task force is still a baby step.

"I'm always a little reluctant to be too excited about a task force."

But she said it could help get more data about how many Native women are disappearing and murdered in Wyoming. She'd like to get Wyoming's Division of Criminal Investigation access to national missing persons data so the attorney general can figure out who's going missing where. Ellis said the state can also help implement an Amber Alert system on the Wind River Reservation to get the public's help finding young Native girls quickly after they disappear.

But when it comes to investigating murders, Ellis said the state's hands are tied.

"We have a very complicated jurisdictional maze," she said. "Depending on the race of the victim, the race of the perpetrator and where the crime occurred it will depend on who will have jurisdiction, either the state, the federal government or tribes."

Which is why some cases like Dawn Day's fall through the cracks. Ellis said she plans to start addressing these problems at the task force's first meeting in Fort Washakie August 19.

Meanwhile, Dawn Day's father Gregory still holds out hope that law enforcement will someday arrest his daughter's killer.

"That's the only way we're going to get closure," said Gregory. "These guys get put in jail, get justice, [and we] prosecute the lawless."

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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