Bernie Sanders Holds Private Meeting with Families of MMIW in Oklahoma by Ashley Nicole McCray

On Sunday, September 22, Presidential candidate and US Senator Bernie Sanders (Vermont) made a historic stop right in the heart of Indian Country in Indian Territory, Oklahoma. Bernie is the first presidential candidate to visit the region since Teddy Roosevelt, according to Comanche Nation Chairman Willie Nelson. During this visit to Oklahoma, a state he overwhelmingly won in 2016, Bernie held a rally in Norman before making the trek to the southwest corner of the state, where he met with tribal leaders, grassroots community organizers, families of missing and murdered indigenous relatives, participated in the Comanche Nation Fair’s grand entry, and addressed a crowd of thousands of tribal citizens from all over the nation.

In his speech, Bernie acknowledged the hundreds of years of broken treaties, the deplorable treatment of sovereign, tribal nations, the need for non-natives to follow indigenous leadership in the fight to end the climate crisis, and, perhaps a first for any of the primary candidates, provided tangible solutions to the issue of our missing and murdered indigenous relatives, before continuing with his platform, which includes healthcare for all, closing the gaps of economic inequality, wiping away medical debt and student loan debt, free college, and ensuring housing for our most vulnerable citizens.

Bernie was extremely well received by the crowd, who often overpowered the outdoor arena with chants of, “BERNIE, BERNIE!” This reception is not surprising, given Bernie’s long and consistent history of allying with native communities, like Oak Flat in 2015 and Standing Rock the following year. Bernie is also known for his commitment to involving actual community members in the creation of his political platform and to inform his own policy creation. A good example of this took place on Sunday at the Comanche Nation headquarters, at a private meeting between the Senator and approximately 50 community members from across the state who are working tirelessly to end the missing and murdered indigenous relatives epidemic.

Groups in attendance were MMIW OK - SW chapter, MMIW OK - SE chapter, NEO MMIR, MMIW - Indian Capitol, AIM Indian Territory, Indigenous Peoples Day Lawton, Native Alliance Against Violence, Native Federation of Oklahoma Democrats, Cameron University’s Native American Student Association, and Warrior Woman Society.

After singing the Comanche flag song, Comanche tribal member Dr. Cornel Pewewardy officially welcomed Bernie to Numunu territory and the meeting. Following protocol, Bernie was seated at the head table between the family members of some of Oklahoma’s missing and murdered indigenous relatives. Bernie heard the stories of Ida Beard, Britney Tiger, Emily Morgan, Angela "Sam" Maynahonah Rodriguez, Aubrey Dameron, Wesley Stillsmoking, and Ci’Lina Deloney, respectfully.

LaRenda Morgan shared the story of her cousin Ida Beard, who went missing in 2015 in Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal territory. Over the past few years, the El Reno police department has yet to receive any substantial leads or evidence regarding Ida’s disappearance. The family continues to search for answers, recently hiring a private investigator in hopes that they can help them resolve this tragic case.

Bernadine Bear Heels recounted the tragic story of her daughter Britney Tiger, who went missing on February 11, 2018. Her body was discovered by a local about a month later, just 15 miles away from her home in Ada. Ada police department is still actively working on her case. The OSBI put out a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator(s) in Britney’s case.

Kim Merryman shared the story of her daughter Emily Morgan, who was murdered alongside Totinika Elix in a brutal double homicide in rural Oklahoma in 2016. Kim, like so many mothers, is still seeking answers for her daughter and Totinika. Kim relayed how she and Emily were volunteers on Bernie’s 2016 campaign in Oklahoma and had made plans to go to the polls together to vote for Bernie before her daughter was taken from her.

Crystal Rodriguez recounted the story of her sister Angela “Sam” Maynahonah Rodriguez, who was last seen in Lawton in 2012. When Sam’s family reported her missing to the police, law enforcement questioned Sam’s character and blew off the report as if Sam had willingly gone with whoever abducted her. Sam’s body was found several months later about 60 miles south of Lawton. A potential witness to the case was interviewed, but Lawton police department apparently lost the interview tapes. To this date, there have been no arrests, no new leads, no justice, no answers.

Pam Smith shared the story of Aubrey Dameron, a trans, two-spirit woman who went missing from Grove, Oklahoma in March 2019. Aubrey’s disappearance was blamed on her so-called “risky lifestyle” by law enforcement in Delaware County, who refused to expend resources to find her. Aubrey’s story underscores several running themes — many of these cases go unreported or underreported, and when our community members are actually brave enough to go to law enforcement, many times our cases are pushed to the side, ignored, and not taken seriously. Our indigenous women are targets, but Aubrey’s story reminds us that our trans and two-spirit relatives are even more targeted for these sort of violences. She is still missing and her family is still waiting to #BringAubreyHome.

Attention is finally being generated around the stories of our missing and murdered indigenous women, but it is important to remember that this epidemic reaches deep into our communities, meaning our boys and men can be targets too. Edith Stillsmoking shared the story of her father and community elder, Wesley Stillsmoking. Mr. Stillsmoking went missing in October 2018 after attempting to visit his wife in the hospital, about two hours away from his home in central Oklahoma. His image was captured on a game camera in November 2018 and his vehicle was located that same month, adjacent to the property where the game camera was located. Since then, there have been no answers for Edith and the Stillsmoking family.

Renea Toahty shared the story of her daughter Ci’Lina Deloney, who was found on a road just south of Cache, Oklahoma in January of 2017. Ci’Lina’s case remains unsolved, although her car was later found in the Walmart parking lot on Sheridan in Lawton, Oklahoma. Like so many of our MMIW, Ci’Lina was a young mother and a beloved member of her community. Ci’Lina’s cousin, Junior Miss Oklahoma Federation of Indian Women (OFIW) Angelina Steinmeyer, who was also present at this meeting, has used her princess reign to uplift the MMIW platform in an effort to help her family — and other families — find answers and justice.

Gen Hadley of MMIW OK - SW chapter and keeper of Oklahoma’s MMIP database, helped close the meeting by presenting a blanket to Senator Sanders, while sharing with him the street searches, the data collection, and the other efforts grassroots community members are forced to conduct in the absence of meaningful policy on the local, state, and federal level that will keep our communities safe.

In this meeting, Bernie was receptive, he listened, he was sincerely moved by the accounts of the families, and he made a sincere promise to appoint an Attorney General and Department of Justice who will work in tandem with families, tribes, and law enforcement at every level of jurisdiction, in addition to ensuring that native victims and survivors will be able to hold nonnative perpetrators accountable everywhere in this country. Jurisdiction is often a huge barrier to justice for tribal communities, and in addition to data collection and changing the culture of law enforcement, stands as one of the major pillars to ending the nationwide epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous relatives.

Following this meeting, the group escorted Bernie to the outdoor arena, wading through thick crowds of Bernie supporters and excited “Bernie, Bernie!” chants, then joined him in the grand entry, flanked in a sea of red to demonstrate solidarity with our missing and murdered indigenous relatives.

According to the Sovereign Bodies Institute, Oklahoma is 10th in the nation in occurrences of missing and murdered indigenous relatives. Community organizers, such as those listed above, have worked diligently to dismantle this chilling statistic in a state that is often dismissed or overlooked on the national stage. Home to the crossroads of two major interstates - I-40 and I-35, and with several compounding factors such as excessive fossil fuel extraction, dense tribal populations, high poverty rates, and a general sentiment of anti-indigeneity via negative mascotry, police murders of indigenous peoples, and the world’s highest incarceration rate for both men and women, Oklahoma is a hub for such violences to occur.

Thanks to grassroots organizers, community members, and impacted families, this issue is gaining traction and finally moving to the forefront of mainstream political discourse in our state. Oklahoma Representative Mickey Dollens (D) is hosting a Missing & Murdered Indigenous Peoples Study Session in November, where impacted families and local and national experts will provide testimony in hopes that the state will finally pass meaningful policies to help end this national epidemic.

In light of this state-level organizing, Bernie’s visit and his ability to address this topic while providing thorough, tangible solutions, in addition to a strong understanding and message on sovereignty, is both timely and welcome in Indian Territory — and all of Indian Country for that matter.

By Ashley Nicole McCray, M.A.
Absentee Shawnee Tribe (Li-Si-Wi-Nwi) | Oglala Lakota Nation (Oceti Sakowin)

Ashley Nicole McCray is an enrolled member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe and comes from the Oglala Lakota Nation. Ashley resides in Oklahoma, where she was the 2018 Democratic Nominee for the statewide office of Corporation Commission, the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing oil, gas, utility, and transportation. That same year, she was featured in the VICE special, "United States of Oil and Gas." Ashley was the 2017 Oklahoma Sierra Club distinguished activist, in 2016 she was featured in the PaperRocket & LiKeN production, "Indigenous Communities: On the Frontlines of Climate Change and Fossil Fuel Extraction," she was the 2015 Norman City Council & Norman Human Rights Commission's Human Rights Award Recipient, and she was a 2015 White House Champions of Change. She received an M.A. from the University of Central Oklahoma and an M.A. from the University of Oklahoma. Her work centers around policy, environment, and tribal issues.