By Lisa Kaczke, Reprinted with permission of Sioux Falls Argus Leader
Taylor Baldeagle wears a beaded necklace every day that belongs to his missing daughter Sharon Baldeagle.
“She travels with me, no matter where I go,” the Eagle Butte resident said.
Sharon was 12 years old and living on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation when she was last seen on Sept. 18, 1984. She and a friend ran away and were picked by a man named Royal Russell Long, who tied them up and beat them in his Wyoming home. Sharon’s friend was able to escape, but Sharon has never been found.
Taylor especially mourns for his missing daughter on her birthday — she turned 47 on June 25 — and on Father’s Day, when she and her younger brother would make him breakfast.
“To me, she’s still my little girl,” said Taylor, a retired tribal judge.
It’s unknown how many Native American women like Sharon have gone missing or been murdered in South Dakota over the years. But that’s about to change.
New law will focus on understanding missing, murdered indigenous women
A new state law beginning July 1, which received unanimous support in the South Dakota House and Senate, is the first step in understanding the depth of the missing and murdered indigenous women issue in the state and begin to address it, supporters say. The law will require the state Division of Criminal Investigation to collect data on missing and murdered indigenous people, and create procedures and training for investigating cases involving women and children.
The state can’t fix a problem if it doesn’t understand the problem in the first place, explained bill sponsor Sen. Lynne DiSanto, R-Box Elder.
DiSanto hopes the new law helps families feel like the state cares about their loved ones and is trying to help find them. On a larger scale, she hopes it leads to better collaboration between tribal and non-tribal law enforcement in these cases and sends a message that “every missing South Dakotan is important, worthy of our time and our resources,” she said.
Gov. Kristi Noem’s support for addressing the issue in South Dakota has included joining the final leg of a group’s 200-mile horseback ride to the Capitol in Pierre to bring awareness to missing and murdered indigenous women earlier this month. The new law will allow the state to share information with other state and tribal agencies to “bring these women home,” she told the Argus Leader.
“If we’re going to create a stronger South Dakota, we need to take care of our most vulnerable population,” she said. “I’m proud of the way this bill paves avenues for us to work together and make real headway on this issue.”
Hundreds of missing people falling through the cracks
The Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle attempted to compile a list of missing and murdered indigenous women in 71 urban areas across the country in a 2018 report, but it believes the 506 cases it could find is an undercount.
For South Dakota, the institute tallied one case in Pierre, eight in Rapid City and four in Sioux Falls. The lack of data and inaccurate understandings about missing and murdered indigenous women and girls creates “a false perception” that the issue doesn’t affect Native Americans living in urban areas, the report concluded.
South Dakota isn’t alone in trying to get a handle on the issue. North Dakota passed bills similar to South Dakota’s new law, and Montana created a new missing person specialist to boost its work. A bill creating a task force on missing and murdered indigenous women in Minnesota goes into effect on Monday. A national inquiry in Canada also concluded earlier this month, releasing its final 1,200-page report detailing more than 2,300 stories from families and survivors of violence and 231 action items needed to end the epidemic in the country.
Savanna’s Act, which would require the federal Department of Justice to develop protocols for cases involving missing and murdered Native Americans, was reintroduced earlier this year after stalling in Congress last year, and a hearing on the federal bill took place earlier this month. Bill sponsor U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, explained during the hearing that “part of our problem is, we don’t even know what we don’t know.”
South Dakota Rep. Tamara St. John, R-Sisseton, sees the state’s law as working in tandem with Savanna’s Act if it passes and connecting the tribes, state and federal entities.
What’s different about these cases?
Missing person and homicide cases involving Native American women are unique because they can fall into multiple law enforcement jurisdictions and can occur in isolated locations in South Dakota.
St. John said she doesn’t believe law enforcement is intentionally looking the other way, but the jurisdiction complexities can cause delays or cases to fall through the cracks, or the person isn’t reported missing at all. Sex trafficking or drug addiction may also play into how a case of a missing Native American woman is handled, which can cause the family to perceive that it’s not being investigated, she said.
DiSanto and St. John pointed to the case of Corrine White Thunder as an example of why the legislation was needed. White Thunder’s body was found in the Missouri River in Pierre earlier this month after she was missing for 18 months, but she wasn’t reported missing.
“Clearly, we have a breakdown of missing Native women specifically in South Dakota that no one is looking for and that’s not right and it needs to be improved,” DiSanto said.
Homicide cases of Native American women where no investigation was completed dates back to the early 1900s, if not earlier, said St. John, who is a historian for the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe.
To understand why Native American women face higher rates of violence, St. John looks to Native Americans’ history and the stereotypes about and prejudices against them. Native women have been dehumanized or sexualized and the media has historically solidified those stereotypes. Native American communities also struggle with alcohol, drugs and poverty, which can factor into the belief that Native women aren’t important.
All missing people are important, but its been an ongoing issue for Native American women “because Native women can be perceived as marginalized and outside scope of the American justice system and for that reason, can be easily targeted or a family won’t be assisted,” St. John said.
Unsolved cases in South Dakota
Taylor Baldeagle says a prayer for his daughter Sharon at every meal.
Long, the man who kidnapped Sharon and her friend, was arrested in New Mexico a week after their disappearance. He died in 1993 in prison, where he was serving time for kidnapping and assaulting the two girls. Long maintained that he dropped Baldeagle off with someone who took her to Texas, according to news stories at the time.
Taylor searched for Sharon on his own for a while, putting up posters about his daughter in bus and train stations — “that was before Amber Alert became popular,” he explains. Law enforcement has called him about alleged sightings of Sharon over the years, but none have resulted in finding her. The public’s interest in Sharon’s disappearance waned after four or five years because “there’s so many missing children,” he said.
He believes his daughter is still out there somewhere, and he still hopes that she’ll be found. But he’s now 84 years old. What will happen if he passes away without finding out what happened to his daughter?
“We’ll meet again,” he said.
The Argus Leader attempted to compile of list of cases of missing and murdered Native American women and girls in South Dakota and found five missing persons cases and 12 homicide cases using databases and newspaper archives. These were the cases that have yet to be solved or an arrest hasn’t been made:
• Delema Lou Sits Poor has been missing since Feb. 1, 1974, when she was walking on a back road from Oglala to Manderson on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and never arrived at her destination.
• Rapid City resident Donna Marie Larrabee, 16, took a bus to California to visit her father. It’s unknown if she arrived, and she’s never been seen since. She was last heard from on Nov. 17, 1976.
• Monica Bercier Wickre of Aberdeen got in a car with two people she knew and one person she didn’t know after leaving a bar on April 7, 1993. Her body was found in the James River outside of Aberdeen on June 16, 1993.
• Leslie Ironroad was staying with a friend in McLaughlin when she went to a party a few miles away. She was found in the morning locked in a bathroom where men had raped her the night before. She died in a Bismarck, N.D., hospital a week later on Feb. 27, 2003.
• Beverly Ann Ozuna-Ulrich, 42, was last seen at home in Belle Fourche, and she was reported missing on Oct. 17, 2003.
• Victoria Eagleman’s body was found on Aug. 23, 2006 in a remote area of the Lower Brule Reservation. She was last seen alive on July 28 of that year.
• Jessie Renae Waters’ body was found a mile off of U.S. Highway 18 on the Pine Ridge Reservation on April 30, 2015.
• Sherry Ann Wounded Foot of Porcupine was found beaten and unconscious behind a building in Whiteclay, Neb., and died 12 days later on Aug. 17, 2016.
• Rapid City resident Larissa Lonehill, 16, texted her cousin on Oct. 3, 2016 that she was with two male friends, and that was the last time her family heard from her. Detectives believe her body may have been disposed of within a 100-mile radius of Rapid City, but it remains a missing person case.
New law a first step in solving a problem long ignored
The new law is intended to be the first step in addressing the issue of missing and murdered Native American women and girls in South Dakota.
But state lawmakers are concerned more women could go missing in the meantime.
Native Americans have also expressed concern that the man camps that will sprout up in South Dakota as part of the Keystone XL pipeline construction will increase violence against Native Americans in the state. St. John said that’s a concern anywhere a cluster of industry is located. They can learn from the man camp experiences of other states and provide education on how to spot sex trafficking because a lot of people don’t think it happens in their community, she said.
At the center of these cases is someone’s daughter or sister or mother, St. John said.
“That part is important too — that we’re not just looking at the death of a woman and thinking, ‘Well, she was involved in drugs or she was a prostitute and sex trafficked and it isn’t as important as another individual,'” she said.
St. John said there’s aspects of the new law that they can refine and build on, but it’ll remain to be seen whether that will take more legislation. DiSanto said they need to bring stakeholders together to consider what needs to be done next.
“There are many people that have said they don’t believe it’s a problem,” DiSanto said. “I think they don’t believe it’s a problem because it’s been a problem that’s been ignored for so long that people don’t even know it exists.”