Ashley Heavyrunner Loring hasn’t been see or heard from since 8th July 2017. A 20-year-old member of the Blackfleet Nation, her devastated sister Kimberley has been looking for her non-stop on the Monatana reservation they called home.
In just over a year, Kimberley has undertaken at least 40 searches, but is still no closer to uncovering Ashley’s whereabouts. She’s hunted for clues to her sister’ disappearance in sun, rain, and snow, but no matter how hard she tries, she’ll never be able to cover the whole reservation by herself. The area spans 1.5 million acres, and is larger than Delaware. Nevertheless, she has no plans to stop.
“I’m the older sister. I need to do this,” she told the Press Association. “I don’t want to search until I’m 80. But if I have to, I will.”
But Ashley isn’t the only Native American female to go missing. She’s just one of many women and girls to turn up dead or to vanish entirely. The exact figure is unknown, as cases often go unreported, while others are not recorded in enough detail.
Still, with the rise of the Me Too movement, the issue is finally getting attention. One U.S. senator calls the disappearance of Native American women in her state “an epidemic,” which she links to insufficent resources and disregard for indigenous people.
Cheyenne descendant Annita Lucchesi is compiling a database of missing and murdered Native women in the U.S. and Canada, which includes 2,700 names so far. She said: “Just the fact we’re making policymakers acknowledge this is an issue that requires government response, that’s progress in itself.”
According to the U.S. Justice Departmnet, Native women are murdered at 10 times the national average certain reservations, while a disturbing 2016 study showed that 80% of Native women experience violence during their lifetime. This doesn’t include sexual violence, which half of native women suffer through at some point.
Filmmaker Ivan MacDonald, a member of the Blackfleet Nation, claims that he doesn’t know a single person who hasn’t had a loved one disappear.
“These women aren’t just statistics,” he says. “These are grandma, these are mom. This is an aunt, this is a daughter. This is someone who was loved … and didn’t get the justice that they so desperately needed.”
Ivan and his sister Ivy recently finished a documentary on Native American women who have disappeared in Montana. Their cousin Monica went missing from her reservation school in 1979, at the tender age of seven, so the issue is close to their heart. Monica’s frozen body was found 20 miles away on a mountain, but no one has ever been arrested for her death.
Many of the stories are the same: a woman or girl disappears, the community is distraught, a search erupts, and a reward is extended for anyone with information. Sometimes, the mystery is solved, but more often than not families feel let down by reservation police and the federal authorities, who don’t investigate cases throughly enough.
Ivan has his own theory was to why this is so: “It boils down to racism.
“You could sort of tie it into poverty or drug use or some of those factors … (but) the federal government doesn’t really give a crap at the end of the day.”
Although reservations have Tribal police and are governed by federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, the FBI handles major felonies such as murder, rape, and kidnapping. This jurisdictional overlap makes it difficult for the families of missing persons to get help, as a missing person case isn’t a crime without further evidence.
However, sexism is also a factor, with overworked reservation police not taking women’s disappearances as seriously as they should. As a result, family members like Kimberley and Ivan launch their own investigations.
The long search has reawakened in Kimberley a promise she’d made to Ashley when they were kids. When Kimberley was 8 and Ashley was 5, they were placed in a foster home while their mother was suffering with substance abuse problems. She told her “We have to stick together.”
“I told her I would never leave her. And if she was going to go anywhere, I would find her.”