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Three years later, here's how the Wyoming MMIP taskforce is doing

Vernita Shakespeare and family at Missing Murdered Indigenous March 2022. Vernita addressed the crowd after moving back last month from Oklahoma to search for unanswered questions surrounding her son's death.
Taylar Stagner
Wyoming Public Media
Vernita Shakespeare and family at Missing Murdered Indigenous March 2022. Vernita addressed the crowd after moving back last month from Oklahoma to search for unanswered questions surrounding her son's death.

During the third annual Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person (MMIP) march on Wind River Reservation everyone wore red. Many hung their heads in remembrance of loved ones lost as a prayer was said as drums played.

Vernita Shakespeare (Northern Arapaho) is the mother of Tony Harris who died in 2020. After healing from his death, Shakepeare has recently joined the MMIP movement on Wind River Reservation.

The local movement collectively supports one another as a group of mothers, daughters and family members affected by the unjust loss of a loved one.

"So, we're joining. We're gonna join them and we're gonna help raise money and help. This is just the beginning of what we can do," she said after addressing the MMIP march crowd.

Shakespeare held a sign with her daughters asking that anyone with information about her son, Tony, come forward.

"So, we can get the people that did this to Tony in jail, behind bars and where they need to be because it's not safe anymore," Shakespeare said.

Back in 2019, Wyoming instituted a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person Taskforce to help support the Wind River community and the victims of violence. The taskforce, while a big step forward, has some asking what is next.

The task force has projects in the works like a study being released in 2023 with the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center (WYSAC). There is a documentary film about the families of those affected by MMIP with a working title of "Who Is She?"

Cara Chambers, the Director of Victims Services for the State of Wyoming and chair of the state MMIP task force, said the taskforce is important in the MMIP conversation but it has its limitations.

"We're looking into a population that is largely a sovereign entity, that is governed by federal jurisdiction. So it's fraught, in that respect, in that what the task force can do is make recommendations, but has actually no actual teeth on the Wind River," she said.

But a recommendation made by the task force in a 2021 report that outlined the lack of accurate data in keeping track of MMIP in Wyoming has been put in action.

In that report, they recommended that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) hire a victim witness coordinator to support victims of violence. The BIA has created the position but Chambers said it's been tricky getting someone to Wind River.

"But I have been assured they have hired someone, [they] should be there at the end of summer," she said.

Lynette Greybull with the non-profit Not Our Native Daughtersis on the task force and said that getting this person on the Wind River advocating for families is extremely important.

"[They] should be the one hounding the law enforcement or any other entities that are involved to help get movement but also to help put pressure on that case,"

Greybull does a lot of advocacy work and is currently in the process of opening a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse on the Wind River. According to the National Institute of Justice, more than half of all Native women have experienced sexual violence.

Greybull pointed out that when Native people go missing it shouldn't just be a Native issue, it's a human rights issue. And it should be the responsibility of all people, not just Indigenous people to bring justice to families on the Wind River.

"We are not considered primetime material when it comes to any atrocities or violence that comes against our people. And it shouldn't be that way. Because that's discrimination. That's racism at best," Greybull said alluding to the amount of coverage white missing persons get, such as Gabby Petito.

Mike Ute with the Eastern Shoshone Business Council addressed the crowd at the MMIP march. He said the taskforce is good, he just worries about governments reaching over the tribe's jurisdiction and prescribing to them what they should do.

"As long as they're open to talking to us and getting ideas from us, instead of just instituting their own ideas for us. I think that really helps us," he said.

He said that he's open to working with the task force and the state when they reach out to the Eastern Shoshone tribe. He said MMIP families are victims of a failing federal justice system.

"A lot of the time they'll [law enforcement] just let people go, or there's no investigation. And that's where a lot of these crimes fall through the cracks. This is bad because the people who have had a crime committed against them feel like they're left out. Like they're just not, they've been ignored," he said.

The victim witness advocate with the BIA would keep a lot of these criminal justice pieces in check.

Venetica Shakespeare's family is still looking for answers and turns to the community for local assistance.

"You know there's help out there. From ordinary people. I do believe this is a good thing," she said.

If you have any information on what happened to Tony Harris in November 2020 in Ethete, Wyoming contact the Lander FBI.

While the taskforce met last fall, they have not scheduled to meet in 2022 by the time of publication.

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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