SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- When they were kids, Muriel Walker and her sister Paulie would tickle each other's faces.
Decades later, that childhood game, which the girls played after being sent up to bed early, vividly reminds Walker of her late sister.
"At night, she'll come to me. I'll be tickling my face. I know that's her way of comforting me," Walker said.
Paulette "Paulie" Walker, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, was found murdered in a remote area of Riverside County, California, in December 1986. No one has ever been charged in connection with the 26-year-old's death.
Paulie is one of the thousands of Indigenous women who have gone missing, been murdered or died under suspicious circumstances on and off reservations in the United States over the years. This national epidemic of violence gave rise to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, a growing movement that seeks to bring awareness to the issue.
Three women found dead on two reservations in northeast Nebraska last year are among the victims.
Ashlea Aldrich, a 29-year-old mother of two, was found lying naked in a muddy cornfield on Jan. 7 just outside Macy on the Omaha Indian Reservation. Her family said she died as a result of domestic violence, but no charges have been filed in federal court against anyone in connection with her death.
Kozee Decorah, 22, was killed and her body burned on May 16 at a remote cabin on the Winnebago Indian Reservation. Her family was angered when Jonathan Rooney, her 26-year-old fiancé, was initially only facing a manslaughter charge. But, in October, Rooney's charge was upgraded to second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to stand trial beginning Monday in U.S. District Court in Omaha.
Lenice Blackbird's decomposing body was found by one of her relatives on June 27 in a remote area of the Omaha Indian Reservation, after the 25-year-old's mother reported her missing. Her family suspects foul play was involved.
High rates of violence
A National Institute of Justice-funded study found that 84% of Indigenous women report having experienced violence at some point in their lifetimes. And, in some counties, they are murdered at more than 10 times the national average.
As of 2016, more than 5,700 Indigenous women and girls had been reported missing, according to the National Crime Information Center. Activists say that number is likely to be much higher, because of racial misclassification of victims and inconsistent data collection. Only 116 of those cases ended up being logged in the U.S. Department of Justice's federal missing persons database, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.
Michael Wanbdi Gdeska O'Connor, a Native activist and Yankton Sioux tribal member who lives in Sioux City, said the brutal crimes being committed against Native women are shocking, but not surprising, because Natives are in "continuous crisis," facing not only high rates of violence, but also poverty, unemployment and social injustice.
"It has always been dangerous to be Native American, and it has always been open season on our lives, on our rights," he said. "We have always lived in fear. We have always been made to feel less important."
Experts say a lack of communication and planning across jurisdictions, underfunded tribal justice systems, legal loopholes that benefit non-Native offenders, and the prevalence of sex trafficking in and around communities where Natives live all contribute to the disproportionately high rates of violence that Native women face.
While this crisis has been largely ignored in the past, recent grassroots efforts to illuminate it have gained the attention of lawmakers. Victims' loved ones have shared their stories, held vigils and rallies and testified before Congress.
In response, the Trump administration launched the Operation Lady Justice Task Force in November 2019 to review cold cases, strengthen law enforcement protocols and work with tribes to improve investigations and information sharing in Indian Country. Then, in October, then-President Donald Trump signed into law Savanna's Act, a bipartisan bill to further combat the violence against Native women. Among other provisions, Savanna's Act requires the Department of Justice to train law enforcement to record tribal enrollment for victims in federal databases.
Support of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women has continued under the Biden administration.
In April, Interior Secretary Debra Haaland, the first Native to serve as a Cabinet secretary, announced the formation of the Missing & Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.
"The new MMU unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe and provide closure for families," Haaland said in a statement.
Trisha Etringer, Muriel Walker's daughter, said Indigenous people need to be the ones controlling their own data. She cited the MMIWG2 Database, which Annita Lucchesi, a Cheyenne descendent and executive director of the nonprofit Sovereign Bodies Institute, created to log cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and those who are two-spirit -- a term used in some Native cultures to describe gender-variant individuals in their communities.
According to a report released by the institute in July, the database documented 2,306 cases in the United States from 1900 to 2020, of which 58% are homicides.
"It's not just numbers that you throw around. These are people," said Etringer, who serves as operations director for Great Plains Action Society -- a collective of Indigenous organizers working to resist and indigenize colonial institutions, ideologies and behaviors.
MMIW cold case
Walker remembered Paulie, who was a year younger, as a strong, caring, artistic woman. She said her sister liked to draw animals and people and was the family comedian growing up.
The girls spent time in foster care, and Walker, who described herself as rather shy and timid, clung to Paulie for protection. As adults, Walker said Paulie ran to her for refuge from an abusive relationship.
"She would come running to me and we would take her in, and then, she would go right back to him," Walker said of Paulie's boyfriend, a non-Native.
In 1986, after Paulie had moved to California with her boyfriend, Walker said she received a phone call from a law enforcement officer. She said he told her Paulie had been murdered. Paulie's boyfriend was a suspect, according to Walker, but she said authorities couldn't locate him at the time. Lester Harvey, an investigator with the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, said the man has since been ruled out as a suspect.
"I just got that one phone call and that was it," said Walker, who lacked the financial resources to bring her sister's body back home.
Because no one claimed her body, Paulie was buried in California. More than 30 years passed before Walker learned more details of her sister's murder case, thanks to her daughter's efforts.
Jessica Lopez-Walker said she often thought about Paulie and how she wanted to unite her family, which had become disconnected over the years. She arranged to have her uncle buried next to her grandfather, Ernest Walker, in Winnebago and hoped to someday lay her aunt to rest there, too.
"When I was growing up, I saw how it affected my mom, and I always had that in the back of my mind -- I wish there was something we could do," Lopez-Walker recalled.
But, where was Paulie?
Searching for Paulie
Lopez-Walker turned to Facebook pages operated by missing persons groups and even reached out to psychics to find her aunt. An inquiry sent to a Facebook group called "Locating The Missing" proved fruitful.
On Feb. 4, 2019, Shannon Blankenship, a member of the group, reached out to Lopez-Walker, and, within 24 hours, Lopez-Walker said Blankenship had located a potential match in Riverside County. The deceased woman's first name was Paulette. She had the same date of birth and Social Security number as Paulie, but a different last name.
"My aunt was married. I don't think we knew that when we were originally searching for her. We were looking for her under the last name Walker, and her last name was actually Steadham," Lopez-Walker said.
Two of Lopez-Walker's aunts submitted DNA for testing in May of that year, and, in July, the results came back a match to Paulette Steadham, who was buried in Riverside, California, on Feb. 10, 1987.
A California Highway Patrol officer discovered Paulie's body at 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 22, 1986, while measuring the scene of a motor vehicle crash near Chiriaco Summit in Riverside County. Harvey said the body, which was lying among some sagebrush and couldn't been seen from the roadway, was found 90 miles away from Long Beach, the last place Paulie was reportedly seen alive.
"The cause of death is asphyxia from strangulation. She had fractured cartilage in the neck," Harvey said of Paulie, who had been staying in a motel in Long Beach with her husband before her death. "That night she was last seen, it sounded like she was possibly in an intoxicated state. Possibly, she'd been in a disagreement with somebody that she was in company with before she left and, then, she was picked up by a truck driver."
Harvey said the homicide is considered a cold case, since all viable leads have been exhausted. He said he is looking to future advances in DNA technology to bring about a break in the case.
In the meantime, Lopez-Walker and her family are waiting for the process of retrieving Paulie's remains to move forward. The tribe is assisting with the cost of disinterment, cremation and shipping, according to Lopez-Walker.
"There's all these other people who are still not claimed by their families. At least I knew where she was," she said.
Lopez-Walker hopes sharing the story of her search for her aunt can help other families find their missing loved ones.
Etringer said this current epidemic of violence against Indigenous women can be traced to European colonization.
"We were raped, pillaged and termed as 'merciless Indian savages,' so right then and there you already have the groundwork of why we're looked at in that sense," she said.
Centuries later, Etringer said Native women are still being sexually objectified in media and pop culture. In fact, 96% of Native women who experienced sexual violence reported being victimized by non-Natives, according to the National Institute of Justice.
The domestic violence that is occurring among some Natives has its roots in the boarding school era. From roughly 1860 to 1978, the U.S. government forced tens of thousands of Native children to attend boarding schools in an effort to assimilate them into white society.
Sasha Rivers, Etringer's sister, said the children were beaten, raped and stripped of their language, hair and culture while at the schools. When they returned home, she said, they didn't know how to connect to their parents and the family structure was dismantled. This trauma has trickled down through the generations, according to Rivers.
"How do you deal with this trauma if you're not taught or not given the resources? You drink, or you do other toxic behaviors," she said. "You have generations that are still trying to reconnect to their culture."
Etringer said she gained a greater awareness of the issue while participating in protests on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota in 2016. A year later, Etringer attended a MMIW symposium in South Dakota, and her involvement in the movement, which is symbolized by a red handprint across the mouth, has only grown from there. She goes to runs, rallies and marches to raise awareness of not only Indigenous women whose voices have been silenced by violence, but also children, relatives and two-spirit people.
"Some of the stories that are shared are very triggering and they're really sad, but I think our women, as traumatizing as it is, are gaining some sort of healing from it," Etringer said. "From that healing, they're able to stand up and do something about it.
"It may be art. It may be song. It may be prayer. It may be actually going onto the front lines and advocating for equality."