STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How do you investigate a crime when the victim lives in two nations at once? It is an urgent question for women who are citizens of the United States and also citizens of Native nations because Native women are being murdered at shocking rates. Seven states have now set up special task forces to address this problem. Melodie Edwards of Wyoming Public Radio has a story that some listeners will find disturbing, and it begins with the story of a single crime.
MELODIE EDWARDS, BYLINE: It's been seven years now since passing boaters found Dawn Day's body floating in a Wyoming lake. But still, her dad, Gregory Day, and her aunt, Madeleine Day, talk about her laughter.
MADELEINE DAY: She was crazy. Crazy...
GREGORY DAY: Crazy in a good way, though.
M DAY: Yeah.
G DAY: Make you laugh, you know. Just...
M DAY: That's what she did. She always wanted everybody to be happy.
EDWARDS: And Madeleine says it was trying to make people happy that kept Dawn from leaving an abusive boyfriend.
M DAY: She has that puppy dog syndrome, you know. Like, I can fix you. I can - you can't. How are you going to fix somebody that strangles you or throws you out of a car, that throws you in a fire? You know, that's not love. You can't fix them.
EDWARDS: The autopsy called the cause of Dawn Day's death undetermined. But Gregory and Madeleine say they know what killed her, and it was not drowning.
G DAY: There was no water in her nose. Her lips weren't blue. She was just beaten to death.
M DAY: Yeah.
EDWARDS: But as with many Native women's deaths, Dawn Day's was never classified as a homicide. In the end, prosecutors didn't bring charges, and police never closed the case. Now Madeleine Day is worried that her own daughter will be next, since she too is in an abusive relationship.
M DAY: If she don't get some kind of help, she's going to be laying right next to my niece.
EDWARDS: Native girls and women are 10 times more likely than average to be the victim of a violent crime. One organization working to educate the public about solutions to violence in Indian Country is Not Our Native Daughters. Lynette Grey Bull is the director, and she too is a survivor of attempted murder by an intimate partner. Grey Bull says, while speaking at a reservation high school recently...
LYNETTE GREY BULL: When I asked the audience how many had either missing or murdered family members in their own family, I would say at least 40% of the room, hands went up.
EDWARDS: Such experiences prompted her to speak up during a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's March on the University of Wyoming campus this spring. Grey Bull addressed Wyoming's Governor Mark Gordon directly, asking him to take action. Then Governor Gordon got up.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK GORDON: Thank you, Lynette, for your comment about - we need to do a task force. Senator Ellis and I just talked about, let's do this. So we will.
EDWARDS: Governor Gordon is referring to state senator and Navajo tribal member Affie Ellis. Ellis was an author of a 2015 congressional report called "A Road Map For Making Native America Safer." She says a few states are adopting these task forces - New Mexico, Montana, Minnesota - but it's just an early step.
AFFIE ELLIS: I'm always a little reluctant to be too excited about a task force.
EDWARDS: But she says it could help get Wyoming's Division of Criminal Investigation access to national missing persons data to figure out who's going missing where. Ellis says the state can also help implement an Amber Alert system on the reservation to aid in finding Native children who disappear. But when it comes to investigating murders like Dawn Day's, Ellis says the state's hands are tied.
ELLIS: We have a very complicated jurisdictional maze. Depending on who the race of the victim, the race of the perpetrator and where the crime occurred, it will depend on who has jurisdiction - either the state, the federal government or tribes.
EDWARDS: She says that's why so many cases fall through the cracks. Ellis plans to start tackling these problems at the task force's first meeting next month.
For NPR News, I'm Melodie Edwards on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
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