BILLINGS — It took 10 days from the time Gabby Petito was reported missing to find her body in a remote camping area of the Wyoming wilderness. That is lightning speed in the world of missing persons cases. It’s also a painful reminder for Wyoming’s Indigenous population.
Petito, a 22-year-old white woman, was found just 70 miles from the western boundary of the state’s only reservation, Wind River, where native residents continue to deal with a growing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) epidemic.
"This happens every day to young Indigenous women and men. It happens every day," said Jordan Dresser, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming. "But it doesn’t get the coverage she got. As Native people, we’re always seen as invisible. We’re always seen as less than.”
Dresser sees firsthand what MMIP cases do to a native community. He was elected chairman of the Wind River Reservation tribe in December 2020 and has been a key liaison for Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force, created in 2019.
That task force released a report earlier this year showing the crisis’ deep roots. Over the last decade, 710 indigenous people were reported missing. Fifty percent were not found within a week. One in five were still missing after a month.
The homicide statistics are more glaring. Indigenous peoples make up less than three percent of Wyoming’s total population, but 21 percent of the state’s homicides. The main culprit, according to the report? Coverage.
"We really saw this theme of Indigenous women being overshadowed and not reported on," said task force Chairwoman Cara Chambers. "Even when they were reported on, it was typically after a body had been found or a crime had occurred, and it was typically framed very negatively - a graphic description of the crime - while their white counterparts were more likely to have an article written while they were still missing to aid in the search."
"It’s usually, ‘They’re drinking, they’ll show up. They’re on drugs, they’ll show up. They're with their boyfriend/girlfriend, they'll show up,'" Dresser said. "When someone’s missing, it should be reported immediately, and there should be a fast response."
Jurisdiction battles within law enforcement agencies also play a major role.
"There’s friction not only at Wind River but across most reservations across the country," Dresser said of the split between local BIA agencies and federal resources. "When a major crime is committed on the reservation, it’s automatically a federal case, so the FBI gets involved. But that creates a lax time.
"The first 48 hours are very crucial, not only in locating the person but their perpetrator. So that’s why so many women like Ashley Loring and Jermain Charlo (two Blackfeet tribal members missing in Montana) go missing, and the people who did stuff to them are never found and brought to justice."
Wyoming does not have an MMIP database. Montana’s was launched this summer but is still in its infancy in a state that currently has 203 missing people, and Census statistics show us that more than a quarter of them are Indigenous. Dresser says region-wide cooperation is one key to reversing the trend.
"Whether it be Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, Utah - if we created a coalition about somebody who has gone missing, and say, 'These are the states close to each other. Be on alert'," Dresser said.
Until then, the Petito case showed everyone the world’s best tool right now.
"Leveraging social media, from what I've been able to determine, has really led to some pivotal leads," Chambers said. "When you have a national spotlight on you, everyone wants to rise to the occasion."
No matter who that occasion is for.