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"Fighting Tooth And Nail": New Report Shows Indigenous People In Wyoming Face More Violence


Nicole Wagon knew something was wrong days before she would get the news.

"I didn't feel good. I didn't feel good for those couple days. And what can I explain to you is leading up to that day I received the call. It just felt like a sense, a feeling. And I couldn't shake it," she said.

She knew Jocelyn was planning a road trip and thought about going over to visit her but decided against it. Their visits sometimes went on a long time with all the talking and laughing. And then the next day Nicole got a call.

"And I received a call that day from my aunt and I could hear it in her voice and it was full of panic," Nicole said. And I already knew, I already had a not-good feeling. And just connecting everything. As soon as I got to my daughters residence to see all that law enforcement, I knew it wasn't good."

It was a few days after New Years, 2019. Police officers were dispatched that afternoon as holiday snow clung to Christmas lights.

Nicole was unable to describe the feeling of losing a child but she still tried.

"And it was a total shock. It's devastating and it's indescribable," Nicole said.

Jan. 5, 2019, Jocelyn Watt and her partner Rudy Perez were murdered. The crime is still unsolved two years later.

Then last year, Nicole Wagon lost another daughter, Jade. Again, Nicole knew something was wrong when she didn't show up for her older sister's annual memorial.

"I knew my there's no way that she would have missed that. So I knew something was wrong."

Nicole reported Jade missing right away, but later that month Jade was found. Jade's case is still under investigation by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Nicole remembered having to tell her other three daughters.

"And that memory stays etched into my mind of the devastation. This devastation on my daughters faces. You can't take that pain away," Nicole said.

But Nicole held onto her family and her faith and became an advocate for not only her daughters but for missing and murdered Indigenous people all over the state of Wyoming and in Indian Country.

Nicole's message is one the tribal community has been trying to tell Wyoming leaders for years. But now a new report is showing that Nicole's experience isn't an anomaly. Wyoming's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force released their findings last month.

Emily Grant is a research scientist at the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming. Grant immediately saw problems with collecting data.

"And they made up 21% of the total homicide victims in the state, which is surprising because they're less than 3% of the state population. So there's a very big disparity there."

"The data is not being recorded accurately or the data isn't being recorded at all," Grant said.

The information Grant could find showed that there were 105 homicides of Indigenous people statewide between 2000 and 2020.

"And they made up 21 percent of the total homicide victims in the state, which is surprising because they're less than 3 percent of the state population. So there's a very big disparity there," Grant said.

And the problem isn't limited to the reservation. There was at least one missing Indigenous person reported in every Wyoming county over the last decade except one. A total of 710 cases in Wyoming.

But you wouldn't know that from the news. Grant said the media favors stories about white victims. 51 percent of white homicide victims received coverage compared to 30 percent of Indigenous homicide victims. And Indigenous women were the lowest at only 18 percent.

The study also found that when the victim was White the media was less graphic about the state of the victim's body.

Grant said, "In addition to violent language, homicide victims that are indigneous were more often portrayed in a negative light sharing negative information about their personal life that is not directly related to the crime itself."

Grant said in stories about Indigenous victims, the media included negative details about substance abuse or unemployment. She said details like this add to people's implicit bias about Indigenous people.

Emily also said putting together this report wasn't easy. Information was often inaccurate, locked behind a paywall, or non-existent.

And the COVID-19 pandemic didn't help data recovery either.

Cara Chambers is the chair of the task force and director of the victim Services in Wyoming. She said originally they planned to do in person interviews but the pandemic made that impossible.

"And as we know, the pandemic was really disproportionately impacting our reservation in our state, and they had really shut down almost immediately out of self preservation and out of an abundance of caution," Chambers said.

But she said the taskforce refused to let the pandemic stop their progress. She said it was too important to tell people's stories.

"...Having a background in victim services, I wanted to make sure we weren't just focusing on data and numbers and statistics"

Joceyln and Jade are buried in Arapaho at the St. Stevens Mission. Nicole hopes the national attention to the problem is finally affecting change. Recently there's been a warrant out for a suspect in Jade's murder case.

Nicole said she's not going to quit on her daughters because they wouldn't quit on her.

"If this happened to me, I know my daughters would be fighting tooth and nail for me. So I fight for justice for them as well."

You can read the task force's full report here.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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