It’s been seven years since passing boaters found Dawn Day’s body floating in a lake on the high plains of Wyoming. Sitting next to each other on the couch, a warm breeze coming in through the screen door, her dad Gregory Day and her aunt Madeleine Day miss Dawn’s laughter.
“She was crazy,” Madeleine Day says.
“Crazy in a good way, huh?” Gregory Day says. “Make you laugh.”
“That’s what she did. She always wanted everybody to be happy,” agrees Madeleine Day. And she says it was trying to make people happy that kept Dawn from leaving an abusive boyfriend.
“That puppy dog syndrome, like, I can fix you,” Madeleine Day says. “You can’t. How you going to fix somebody that strangles you, throws you out of a car, that throws you in a fire? That’s not love. You can’t fix him.”
The autopsy called the cause of Dawn Day’s death undetermined. But Gregory and Madeleine Day say they know what killed her and it wasn’t drowning.
“There was no water in her lungs, her lips weren’t blue,” Gregory says. “She was just beaten to death.”
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 her own daughter will be next since she too is in an abusive relationship.
“If she don’t get some kind of help, she’s going to be laying right next to my niece.”
Native girls and women are more likely than average to be the victim of a violent crime. Now, seven states are taking early steps to help better identify and locate Native crime victims.
Lynette Grey Bull, director of Not Our Native Daughters, is a survivor of attempted murder by an intimate partner. The organization educates the public about solutions to violence in Indian Country.
“There was a horrible day in my life where he put a gun to my head and put a few bullets in there and spun the wheel and pulled the trigger,” recalls Grey Bull through tears. “And I remember praying in my head asking God if he let me out of here, I will never come back to him ever again. And that’s what I did.”
Grey Bull said that while speaking at a reservation high school recently, “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.”
Such experiences prompted Grey Bull 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 Gov. Mark Gordon directly, asking him to take action.
Then Gov. Gordon got up.
“Thank you, Lynette, for your comment about [how] we need to do a task force,” Gov. Gordon said. “Sen. Ellis and I just talked about, let’s do this, so we will.”
There was a surprised pause, then the audience broke out in applause. Gov. Gordon was referring to Wyoming state senator and Navajo tribal member Affie Ellis, an author of a 2015 congressional report called “A Roadmap For Making Native America Safer.” She said six other states are also adopting these task forces — New Mexico, Montana, Minnesota, Arizona, California and Nebraska — but that a task force is just an early step.
“I’m always a little reluctant to be too excited about a task force,” Ellis says.
But she said 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.
“We have a very complicated jurisdictional maze,” she explains. “Depending on the race of the victim, the race of the perpetrator and where the crime occurred it will depend on who will have jurisdiction, either the state, the federal government or tribes.”
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.