'Who She Is' shares stories of MMIW in Wyoming
February 16, 2023
She likes to journal. She took care of her little sister through foster care. She loves football. She just wanted to go on a trip with her friend.
Abbi. Sheila. Jocelyn. Lela.
These are the names of real women with full, complicated, vibrant lives.
They are also the names of women who became part of the ongoing epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).
Their stories are told in the short film "Who She Is," which had a special screening at the Broadway Theater in Rock Springs Feb. 2, including a question and answer time with filmmakers Jordan Dresser and Sophie Barksdale.
The film follows the stories of four women who all had connections to Wyoming and the Wind River Reservation throughout their lives. Their stories are told one after the other, with scenes of animation following along with first-person narration from the woman's perspective telling about her life - as well as her murder or the time she spent missing.
"It tells a story about four very important women and it tells the journeys about what they went through," Dresser explained.
The term "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women" was coined within the past decade, Dresser explained, but has been a problem for centuries.
"We've been saying that it has been going on since first contact," Dresser said. "So this is something that we want to talk about, because it's very important that we have these discussions."
Dresser, who was previously the chairman for the Northern Arapaho Tribe, was approached by the Wyoming Division of Victim Services with the idea for doing a film highlighting MMIW - and the offer for the WDVS to fully fund the project. Dresser teamed up with Barksdale, a filmmaker originally from Australia, and Jonathan Thunder, an animator and member of the Ojibwe Tribe, to make the film.
While going through the process of making "Who She Is," the team's focus kept coming back to the lives of individual women.
"We would meet with the families and we would just have conversations, and we were just talking about who these women were, and that was the key thing we wanted to talk about," Dresser explained. "What did they like to do? What was their favorite color? What were their lives like? Because that was something that we felt like we noticed that was missing during this whole movement. People would just say, 'well, these women go missing' and give their name, but they wouldn't give a context of who they were, so we felt like that was very important."
While the film was originally going to include more information about the MMIW epidemic as a whole, that footage ended up being taken out to focus solely on the women.
"We edited it together and it just took away from these beautiful stories," Barksdale explained. "We really wanted to, like Jordan said, look at who they are and really dwell in the beauty of these women."
The extra work won't go to waste, however. Barksdale explained that they plan on using the rest of what they filmed to create a companion piece to "Who She Is," which will be released later. This film will focus on the "whys" of the situation and give more information about topics like why this is happening, why people don't know about it, why data collection is hard, why Indigenous people often have to prove they're Indigenous, why there's difficulty with police response, and more.
For this part of the project, the filmmakers were able to interview Cheryl Horn, the aunt of Selena Not Afraid, a Montana teenager who went missing and was found murdered in 2020.
Selena's case got more national attention than many of the other cases of MMIW, and Horn was influential in becoming a grassroots leader who helped mobilize FBI to make sure Selena's case was investigated.
"In Wyoming, no one has been able to do that," Barksdale explained.
Barksdale also pointed to the case of Gabby Petito, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed "girl next door" who went missing and was found murdered in Wyoming in 2021. Barksdale noted the response of police and media to her case and the national attention it received, which contrasted with the way most MMIW cases are handled.
"We're really lucky she went missing in Wyoming, which sounds terrible, but it really highlighted. . .that disparity, because it is very wide, and it's not something we talk about a lot, and we need to," Barksdale said.
During the question and answer time after the film screening, Dresser and Barksdale addressed a few of the problems and challenges involved in responding to the MMIW epidemic.
There are multiple factors involved in why Indigenous women go missing and are murdered at such high rates, according to Dresser, including poverty and domestic violence. In response to a question from an audience member, Dresser also explained how tribal sovereignty can sometimes create difficulties with jurisdiction. He also pointed out that Wind River Reservation is 2.1 million acres, and currently has about 16 police officers to cover the whole area, while other important positions remain unfilled. For example, the victim advocate position through the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been open for about two years and is still open.
Barksdale pointed out other difficulties, including problems with law enforcement and the court system. Not only are there not enough police, but the response time is often slow. She also said the Wyoming Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force is reaching out to law enforcement across Wyoming to get information about things like training and the process for handling missing persons, but so far only about 20% of Wyoming law enforcement has responded to the request for information. Barksdale also said there are often gaps in the court systems when it comes to MMIW cases, including a high rate of cases being declined and instances of evidence being mishandled or going missing.
"We have to hold systems accountable as well as ourselves," Barksdale said.
While discussing the problems, Dresser and Barksdale also noted some of the important work happening and practical ways people can get involved to help the cause of MMIW.
As the former chairman of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, Dresser has been able to be involved in groups and committees addressing MMIW, including the Not Invisible Act Commission. Dresser also expressed his gratitude to Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon for forming the Wyoming Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force.
As far as practical action any Wyoming resident can take, Dresser strongly encouraged people to support the Ashanti Act, House Bill 18, which is currently going through the Wyoming legislature. This bill would bring the Ashanti Alert system to Wyoming, which is an alert system similar to Amber Alerts, but for missing adults.
For resources to learn more about MMIW, Dresser and Barksdale recommended the podcast "Missing and Murdered" by Connie Walker, the limited series "Murder in Big Horn," the book "Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls" by Jessica McDiarmid, as well as the new film they'll have coming out in the future as a companion piece to "Who She Is," which will include an action guide.
"This is an issue we have to all combat together," Dresser said.
"Who She Is" was produced by Caldera Productions and made possible by funding from the Wyoming Division of Victim Services on behalf of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force. The Wyoming Council for Women and Wyoming Humanities Council also helped support the film and the opportunities to take it around the state for screenings.