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Iowa Native communities combat crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Two Native women hold a framed photo of a young Native woman. They wear red, the color associated with the MMIW movement.
Kendall Crawford
Trisha Etringer and Jess Lopez-Walker lost their aunt, Paulette Walker, to the MMIW crisis.

A small postcard is the last thing that Jess Lopez-Walker’s family received from her aunt.

Paulette ‘Paulie’ Walker of the Winnebago Tribe sent it after moving to California with a boyfriend in 1984. The family never heard from her again. Lopez-Walker said her aunt’s disappearance left a hole in the family — especially for her mother.

“When they were younger, they used to tickle each other's lips and face when they're getting ready to sleep,” Lopez-Walker said. “And when my mom sleeps, she does that to herself. When you watch her, you know she's missing a part of her.”

Last year, more than 5,000 Native women were reportedas missing across the country. Murder is the third leading cause of death for Native women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One Native woman in a ribbon skirt sits beside a photo of her missing aunt. Another Native woman stands behind them in a shirt that reads "I wear red for my relatives." Red is the color associated with the MMIW movement.
Kendall Crawford
Trisha Etringer and Jess Lopez-Walker want justice for their aunt, Paulette Walker.

It’s a national public health crisis, known as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, that has also touched Iowa’s Indigenous communities. Local Native communities across Iowa are coming together to find justice for their relatives and to prevent more women from falling to the epidemic.

Raising awareness

Over the last four years, Native Americans made up 1.5 percent of missing persons cases in iowa, but only a little more than half of a percent of the state's population, according to 2020 census data. There are four active cases of Native women and girls still missing today.

To Trisha Etringer, those numbers are unacceptable.

“Native women and girls, our relatives, are not expendable,” Etringer said. “We are human beings.”

Etringer is the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) director at the Great Plains Action Society, a statewide organization devoted to addressing Native issues. She’s part of a team of Native Americans in Sioux City who have been leading efforts to raise awareness on the public health crisis through workshops and panels.

Etringer said her organization is trying to break a trend of violence against Indigenous women that began with colonialism. She said she wants to build a community task force, devoted to undoing its impact.

“Because if we don't, it's just gonna keep continuing. And so we have the power, us, as Native communities, have that power to create those solutions.”

Aiding families

In October, Sioux City residents crowded into a small room at the Urban Native Center, their attention rapt on a flier of a missing Native woman, Brenda Payer.

Organizers passed out the posters, shouting out streets and parts of town that still needed searching. The Great Plains Action Society coordinated the search party to bring attention to the case and help ease the worries of the family.

One of the organizers, Josh Taylor, said it’s important to take a proactive approach to elevate the stories of missing Indigenous women.

“We have a relationship with law enforcement where they know we're not trying to impede their investigation or step on their toes,” Taylor said. “We're solely there to help both sides.”

Three women stand at a table, grabbing fliers.
Kendall Crawford
At the search party, community members grabbed missing posters to put up throughout Sioux City.

Through mutual aid efforts, the organization helps families touched by the MMIW crisis by paying legal fees, funding travel to look for loved ones, and, in the worst cases, planning memorials.

Taylor said he hopes it can aid families in, what he knows personally, as a situation of great fear. His aunt, Terri McCauley of the Omaha tribe, wasmurdered in Sioux City in 1983. Her case remains unsolved to this day.

His own experience of watching his family struggle for answers inspires him to help others.

“I don't want them to go through what my family has gone through for years,” he said. “We're going to do everything within our power to help them and ease their pain, and whatever discomfort they have.”

Pushing for justice

Taylor was able to help that family locate Payer, a month after her disappearance. But, he is still waiting for justice for his aunt. Local law enforcement have a primary suspect, but only circumstantial evidence.

The family wants an indictment. In May, signs and T-shirts bore the face of Terri McCauley as Native residents marched to demand answers from law enforcement.

“This is a prime example of, of a case of an Indigenous woman that has been pushed to the side, for several years,” Taylor said.

A woman with a red handprint on her face holds a red sign with a photo of Teri McCauley. It reads 'Justice for All!'
Kendall Crawford
Sioux City residents marched in May to demand justice in the 1983 murder of Teri McCauley, a Native woman.

The Sioux City Police Department said it’s working with the county attorney’s office on moving the case forward, after recent DNA testing brought up no new results. Sgt. Mike Manthorne said he’s hopeful that the case will advance soon.

“I think we are at that point where there's nothing else, unless someone comes forward that we never knew about,” Manthorne said. “But it's been almost 40 years, you would have thought that would have happened by now.”

Taylor said the family has waited too long for answers. He said having to march, decades after McCauley’s death, shows how Native communities often have to use their own voices and resources to keep law enforcement accountable.

“I want this dark shadow that has kind of clouded Sioux City and the community for so long to be finally done and over with,” he said.

Overcoming boundaries

Accountability for these cases is only muddied by jurisdictional issues.

That’s the case for the disappearance of Iowa Native Rita Papakee. The Meskwaki woman was last seen at the eastern Iowa tribal settlement’s casino in 2015.

Tribes are under federal jurisdiction, meaning they can’t rely on state resources in missing persons cases. Help from agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation often takes more time than state assistance, said Meskwaki Police Commissioner Mark Bear.

“These guys and gals are handling stuff all over the country. So that means you're really in competition with other entities that may need that same assistance,” Bear said.

A sign with a photo of Rita Papakee reads 'We Miss You, Rita'
Courtesy of Oliviah Walker
Rita Papakee's family remembers her through annual marches in her honor.

But, the small rural community has found ways to keep Papakee’s case alive.

There are annual walks in her honor. An organization, called RISE, was formed to help tackle violence against Indigenous women. And the community is funding an award for any information known about the case. It’s up to $100,000 today.

All of which Papakee’s cousin, Oliviah Walker, said she hopes can bring more awareness.

“It's really thinking about how we shift the culture to be a little bit more focused on prevention,” Walker said.

When Walker thinks about her cousin, she remembers her as someone she idolized. As someone always open to deep conversations. As a loving mother to her three children.

Seven years into her disappearance, family birthday parties and graduations and the birth of grandchildren feel different without Papakee, Walker said. They still feel heavy under the weight of her loss.

“Some people struggle every day with her not being here,” she said. “A lot was taken away from our family when they took her away. We would like to send her home.”

“Native women and girls, our relatives, are not expendable.”
Trisha Etringer, MMIR director at Great Plains Action Society

Saying goodbye

Lopez-Walker had that same hope — to bring her loved one home — when she began her search for her aunt, Paulette.

She watched as her family suffered for decades, not knowing what happened. Until, she decided to investigate herself. From her home in Sioux City, she scoured the internet for answers and began working with a missing persons advocate to find Paulette.

In 2019, she confirmed what her family had long suspected: her aunt had been murdered.

Questions still linger; like ‘Who killed her?’, ‘Will they face justice?’ and ‘Can anything more be done?’

But, now, Lopez-Walker said her family at least gets an opportunity to honor Paulie with a ceremony. With that, she said she feels like her family can finally start to grieve and her aunt’s spirit can rest.

“When you lose a family member, you want that connection with them, that last goodbye with them just to be able to connect with their spirit,” she said.

“I think she deserves that. And my family does too.”

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.