In the summer of 2019, Molina Richards got a call that made her stomach sink. One of her best friend's teenage daughters had gone missing on the Rosebud Reservation.
It took police several days to organize a formal search party because they kept getting tips that she had been seen in various parts of the vast, 1,900-square-mile reservation in one of the most isolated parts of the lower 48 states.
"All the leads, they didn't find her," Richards said, choking back tears as she recalled the trauma of that July day.
Richards ended up part of a six-person search team on ATVs. They finally found Waniyetu Rose Loves War whose English name was Autumn. She was dead at 19.
But Richards had already feared the worst.
"It's always in the back of your mind, growing up here," she said.
Nobody knows how many indigenous people go missing or are murdered every year. There's just not a lot of comprehensive data. But on long neglected reservations such as Rosebud, tribal members are convinced the crisis is worsening everyday.
Tribal governments are renewing pressure on federal and state authorities to devote more resources to the crisis, and there are signs that's starting to happen.
"With Waniyetu's situation, I promised my friend I would never let anybody forget her name," Richards said.
"Like a pandemic"
To that end, Richards wrote and recently won a grant from CARES Act funds available to tribes to open a shelter for women and homeless teens on the reservation. The first of its kind safehouse will be staffed around the clock. It will also be a badly needed refuge for people who are otherwise walking out in the cold all night, organizers said, moving from boarded up gang-run houses, to drug parties, their feet swollen, or far worse.
"At house parties, I saw the disturbing side of the reservation, how bad things can get, how addiction takes over people's lives, people sell their own kids, sell themselves," said Colin Whirlwind Soldier, project manager for the new shelter.
Tribal members say prostitution, drug trafficking and domestic violence are rampant on the Rosebud, where unemployment is high and communities have some of the lowest life expectancy rates in the nation.
"I label it like a pandemic," Richards said. "It's everywhere, the murders have touched everybody here. It happens too much."
Connecting the dots
That same alarm was sounded in the South Dakota legislature this week by State Rep. Peri Pourier, a Democrat who represents the Pine Ridge Reservation to the west of Rosebud. She convinced her Republican colleagues to overwhelmingly pass a bill that, if signed by Gov. Kristi Noem, would create a full-time missing indigenous persons specialist in the state Attorney General's office.
Pourier said too many crimes are going unsolved and perpetrators are taking advantage of the gaps between multiple jurisdictions.
"Sometimes the dots aren't connected that this is a human trafficking issue," Pourier said. "But the most vulnerable of our populations is indigenous women and children."
Of the 109 people currently listed as missing in South Dakota, 77 are believed to be indigenous. Last month alone, 19 native people went missing, according to state figures.
"We're hearing these stories, but who's investigating it? Sometimes natives don't feel comfortable reporting that type of thing to law enforcement," Pourier said.
Pourier and the bill's backers hope there will soon be better data available to start connecting more of those dots. The new missing persons liaison would be tasked with coordinating with the FBI and various tribal law enforcement agencies to investigate the unsolved crimes. South Dakota tribes are also committing to help the state lobby the federal government for more resources.
State of emergency
For many, the urgency is long overdue.
On the Rosebud Reservation in the town of St. Francis, Sharon Swift, a tribal council representative, points to a row of boarded up houses where she said several women had gone missing in the past year. There have been two murders, she said, and a recent survey found more than 100 homeless teenagers in the area.
"I would consider it a state of emergency in Indian Country, not only here on the Rosebud but everywhere," Swift said.
But Swift was encouraged at how quickly plans for the new safehouse and shelter were coming together. There was even a procession as a mobile home was trucked in from the nearby town of Rosebud.
On a recent snowy morning, the temperature below zero, a utility worker was setting up the internet. Staff was getting ready to retrofit the mobile home and there were plans to build paths, a garden and a sweat lodge out back once the snow melted.
Organizers hope its planned opening later this month will be symbolic. In Lakota culture, they said, spring marks the start of the new year, a new beginning.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
We're going to turn our attention now to the alarming rise of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Tribes are pressuring federal and state authorities to devote more resources to the crisis. This week, the South Dakota legislature voted overwhelmingly to create a special law enforcement office to investigate. In South Dakota, 77 of the 109 people currently listed as missing persons are Indigenous. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Two summers ago, Molina Richards got a call that made her stomach sink. One of her best friend's teenage daughters had gone missing on the Rosebud Reservation.
MOLINA RICHARDS: There was a lot of rumors out there. Oh, she was here. She was there. We've seen her at Turtle Creek Store, or we've seen her over here. All the leads - they didn't find her.
SIEGLER: So it took more than seven days before a formal search party was organized.
RICHARDS: I was part of a group of six on ATVs. And we found Autumn. We found Waniyetu.
SIEGLER: Waniyetu Rose Loves War - Autumn was her English name - was dead at 19. Nobody knows how many Indigenous people go missing or are murdered every year. There's just not a lot of data yet. But drug trafficking, prostitution and domestic violence are rampant in isolated, neglected places like Rosebud. Many crimes are going unsolved, too, especially those that cross multiple jurisdictions.
RICHARDS: With Waniyetu's situation, I promised my friend I would never let anybody forget her name.
SIEGLER: To that end, Molina Richards recently wrote and won a grant to open a shelter for women and homeless teens on this reservation. The first of its kind, staffed 24/7, will be a safe house for people who are otherwise walking out in the cold all night, Richard says, moving from boarded-up, gang-run houses to drug parties, their feet swollen or far worse.
RICHARDS: I label it like a pandemic here, too. It's everywhere. Everybody has heard of someone, has known someone. The murders have touched probably everybody here. I mean, it happens too much.
SIEGLER: This same alarm was sounded in the South Dakota legislature this week. Democratic State Representative Peri Pourier is from the Pine Ridge Reservation, where you'll hear anecdotal reports of people with out-of-state plates and tinted windows driving the reservation back roads. She worries the Indigenous are being targeted.
PERI POURIER: And, sometimes, the dots aren't connected that this is a human trafficking issue. But the most vulnerable of our populations is Indigenous women and children.
SIEGLER: Twenty-four people went missing in this rural state last month alone. Nineteen of them were Indigenous.
POURIER: And we're hearing these stories. But who's investigating it? You know, sometimes, natives - they don't feel comfortable reporting that type of thing to law enforcement.
SIEGLER: There could be better data available soon to help connect those dots. Pourier just got a bill through the Republican-controlled legislature that, if signed by the governor, would create a full-time missing Indigenous person specialist in the state attorney general's office. They'd coordinate with the FBI and tribal police on the unsolved crimes. Tribes here are also committing to help the state lobby the feds for more resources. For many, the urgency is long overdue.
SHARON SWIFT: Within the past year here in this community, we've had two murders of two young women here.
SIEGLER: In St. Francis on the Rosebud Reservation, tribal Councilwoman Sharon Swift says plans for that new shelter are coming together quickly, thanks to money from last year's CARES Act and a group of dedicated volunteers.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm just going to run up here and check where we're going to put phones...
SIEGLER: On a recent snowy morning, the temperature below zero, Swift stood by a new mobile home that's being converted into a badly needed safehouse.
SWIFT: The day they brought this trailer, it had a whole procession.
SIEGLER: It's a huge deal. St. Francis, colloquially referred to as the reservation's skid row, is a border town near a remote part of Nebraska and a no man's land for police jurisdictions. Swift says they chose this site because a recent homeless count found that more than a hundred teenagers were living around here, unsheltered and vulnerable.
SWIFT: We consider it a state of emergency in Indian Country, not only here on the Rosebud but everywhere.
SIEGLER: The safehouse should open by the end of the month. Organizers hope that's symbolic. Spring is when the new year begins in Lakota culture.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Rosebud, S.D. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.