OKLAHOMA CITY — Fiercely proud of her Choctaw heritage, Emily Morgan dreamed of being a voice for Oklahoma’s indigenous communities and environment.
But rather than becoming an advocate, her mother said the 23-year-old became a statistic. Someone gunned her and a friend down while they were parked in the driveway of a vacant house in the small Pittsburg County community of Bache in 2016.
“She didn’t know the third leading cause of death (of indigenous women) was murder,” her mother, Kim Merryman, said during a hearing Tuesday at the state Capitol. “She’s one of those statistics, and there’s been no arrest made.”
Native American families and tribal advocates crowded into the state Capitol on Tuesday to voice their frustration with the lingering number of unsolved Native American homicides and missing person cases.
Wearing T-shirts and carrying giant posters with loved ones’ pictures, they hoped to help solve cases that have gone cold or continue to languish on shelves.
“Open your eyes. Open your hearts and look at all the people who are suffering in this room, who have lost a loved one. We’re not going to stop until we get answers,” said Gen Hadley, with the southwest Oklahoma chapter of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
A handful of lawmakers attended Tuesday’s interim study. State leaders are trying to determine, what, if anything, could ease jurisdictional complexities that arise between sovereign tribal citizens and the local law enforcement agencies tasked with tackling complex crimes involving their members.
Statewide, there are about 130 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women, Hadley said.
Native American women are 10 times more likely to be trafficked, said Olivia Gray, a citizen of the Osage Nation and director of the tribe’s family violence prevention unit.
They’re 10 times more likely to be murdered.
And, they’re more likely to be survivors of domestic violence.
“I think Oklahoma has a really good opportunity to create a model that other states will follow,” Gray said. “You have the opportunity to show (other states) how to do this right.”
But indigenous advocates said obstacles include distrust and a frequent lack of communication between Native Americans and the law.
Advocates said tribes are often among the last notified when citizens disappear or bodies are discovered. There’s no funding to search for the missing and murdered, and it’s very hard to gain media attention for lost youth.
Law enforcement classifies 95% of missing indigenous youth as runaways, said Darcie Parton-Scoon, a private investigator and Caddo Nation citizen. There are no standard risk assessment criteria for law enforcement to go through with families, and it’s common for them to prioritize thefts or burglaries over missing juvenile calls, she said.
LaRenda Morgan, whose cousin Ida Beard remains missing, said lawmakers could start by increasing Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation funding.
Providing funding to hire a tribal liaison who specializes in missing people would be particularly helpful to bridge the gap between tribes, city, county, state and federal authorities, said Morgan, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe.
“It would only help with those tribal-state relations that are sometimes not so smooth,” she said.
It also would help if the OSBI had the funding to add investigators tasked with solving cold cases, she said.
Bernadine Bear Heels has waited almost two years for an arrest in her daughter’s murder. It’s still hard for her to speak about it.
Britney Tiger was missing for almost five weeks before a rancher and his daughters discovered the 26-year-old Ada resident’s body in March 2018 in a wooded area east of the city, she said.
“Those five weeks were a living nightmare because your imagination goes in all directions,” Bear Heels said.
While Bear Heels said she’s still waiting for justice for her child, she said there’s at least one positive.
“We were blessed that she was found,” she said. “There are so many other families out there whose relatives have not been found yet.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.