Photo caption: An award-winning photo of Mary Hammer, the daughter of Libbi Gray, the director of the Osage Nation’s Family Violence Prevention Program, shows her walking in the Oklahoma City Women’s March in January. CODY HAMMER/Osage News
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma House of Representatives is one step closer to attempting to address the number of missing and murdered Indigenous people statewide.
For three hours, members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives’ Government Efficiency heard testimony from domestic violence advocates and families of missing and murdered Indigenous women from across Oklahoma.
Drawing a standing room only crowd, the hearing was part of an interim legislative study requested by Rep. Mickey Dollens (D-Oklahoma City) to potentially address the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous people across the state.
A 2018 study published by the Seattle Indian Health Board’s Urban Indian Health Institute ranked Oklahoma 10th nationally for the number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, but also acknowledged that due to the dearth of data, the numbers are “likely an undercount.”
As part of his opening remarks, Dollens said he will be introducing legislation during the 2020 legislative session to create a task force to help address the problem. To help facilitate the study, the Oklahoma City Democrat met with Indigenous groups across the state to get a better sense of the issue.
“I’m not an expert, but the causes go back to colonization, assimilation and fed legislation that was designed to erode sovereignty,” he said. “As a non-tribal citizen, it is important that we acknowledge that to move forward and work together to address this issue.”
Among the witnesses called to testify was Libbi Gray, the director of the Osage Nation’s Family Violence Prevention Program. A survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault herself, Gray cited her four daughters and four granddaughters as part of the reason why she advocates for more resources, both on the prevention side and for the aftermath.
“I look at my grandbabies and wonder which one will be beaten,” Gray said.
“I look at them and wonder which one will be raped. Which one will go missing?
“With us, it’s not a matter of ‘if.’ It’s a matter of when and how many abusers. That’s our reality.”
Along with other witnesses, Gray pleaded with the committee to allocate more funding to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations to allow bringing on more investigators that could help with search efforts.
Several victims’ families told legislators that they were brushed aside by local law enforcement departments when they brought leads forward about their loved ones’ cases or asked about search efforts.
Pamela Smith is the aunt of Audrey Dameron, a transgender Cherokee Nation citizen from the Grove area who has not been seen since March. She told legislators Tuesday about the routine lack of cooperation from various law enforcement agencies regarding her niece’s disappearance.
Along with potential crime scenes being left unsecured for days at a time, Smith said local law enforcement officers initially balked at taking up the case due to Dameron’s previous history of illegal drug use and for having more than 500 male friends on Facebook.
The family eventually had to make arrangements with search and rescue teams from Oklahoma City, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri to try to find Dameron. Attempts to work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service also came up empty-handed since Dameron’s disappearance is currently considered a state case.
“I believe that every person deserves to be found,” Smith said, her voice wavering. “Every human. Doesn’t matter their color or anything. Every person deserves to be found in a timely manner. Not when we, as grassroots, have boots on the ground doing everything.”