Becky Ponkilla never dreamed when she kissed her 29-year-old daughter Ida Beard goodbye on June 30, 2015, it would be the very last time she would kiss her daughter.
Beard never returned home that day. Her missing person case is a mystery and remains open to this day.
Beard is a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and is one of many Native American women and girls across the country that has vanished without a trace and continues to vanish at alarming rates.
Oklahoma is one of many states with a high rate of missing or murdered Native American women, according to a report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. But due to a widespread lack of comprehensive date, the report doesn’t show a complete picture of the epidemic. Overall, more than 1.5 million American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, which contributes to the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, according to the study.
Many of the women who do end up the victims of abduction or murder were previously assaulted, often by their partner, said Oklahoma Indian Legal Services attorney Jacintha Webster.
“And the lack of a centralized missing and murdered Indigenous persons database that can be used across all law enforcement entities doesn’t help matters,” she said.
As the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement spread across the country lawmakers have slowly began to take notice. Photos of women, girls, boys and men with a red painted hand across their mouths have become the symbol of screams for help and to say, ‘no more!’
As more and more states pass legislation and form task forces to study the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people throughout Indian Country, Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City is pushing to do the same in Oklahoma.
Dollens filed a request for an interim study to examine how cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women are being handled to ensure, that in spite of complicated jurisdictional issues, cases do not fall through the cracks. The study also looks at creating a new statewide database on missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“It’s important to acknowledge the root cause of MMIP, Missing and Murdered Indigenous People goes back to colonization, assimilation and legislation proposed by the federal government over a century ago that was designed to undermine tribal sovereignty, especially the matriarch,” Dollens stated to News OK5.
Dollens said as a non-Tribal citizen he feels it is important for him and others to acknowledge that in order to start moving forward the crisis and issues need to start being fixed at the state level.
“I was notified about the crisis from one of my constituents LaRenda Morgan, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and we started to look at what other states have done and we kind of tailored it just for Oklahoma. We want to create a liaison within the OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations) that would be a missing persons specialist and they would help coordinate the jurisdictional boundaries and also the NaMus Institute database, which was passed into law last year called Francine’s Law that collects DNA and helps cross reference and find missing people,” Dollens stated.
The bill, which will be called Ida’s Law, is named after Morgan’s cousin, Ida Beard. It will address missing people in Oklahoma and it would create a statewide database where people could go to easily cross-reference and find those who have gone missing.
“Ida’s Law is important to me because I know the frustration families experience who have missing persons cold cases,” Morgan said.
For Morgan, it is a personal crusade as she continues to watch her aunt suffer grief, depression and always wondering, everyday, what happened to her daughter Ida Beard?
“Her daughter leaving home and not returning has devastated my aunt to her core. I asked myself. What can I really do? What can I do to help my cousin, my auntie and my family? Who do I know that can help? When the opportunity arose for me to be able to discuss this and work with Representative Dollens on an initiative to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples cases. I took the opportunity to offer up any assistance I could,” Morgan said.
Morgan said her and Dollens discussed the details of the legislation to be written and what they both wanted to see in the bill.
“He graciously named his legislation after my cousin Ida Beard. When the time comes in 2020 for Ida’s Law to go to a vote in the Oklahoma Legislature, I humbly ask for everyone’s support by contacting their Oklahoma State House Representative and tell them to vote yes to pass this law creating a Tribal Liaison position within the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations,” Morgan said.
An OSBI Tribal Liaison could assist and train law enforcement on areas that often have barriers such as cultural competency and jurisdictional issues between, city, county, state and federal Indian land. The liaison would help with communications and assist in developing memorandum of agreements between the OSBI and all Tribal Nations in the State of Oklahoma. The position could also help in Tribal/State relations with notifications and data sharing between Tribes and State.
Native American women living on reservations are murdered at alarmingly high rates. In some counties, the number is more than 10 times the national average, according to the Department of Justice.
Nationwide, murder is the third-leading cause of death for Indigenous women. Thousands more face the threat of violence and assault. Eighty-four percent of American Indian women and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a 2016 report from the National Institute of Justice. Of that group, more than half experienced sexual violence.
The fact that Native women and girls have been going missing across the United States and Canada at an alarming rate isn’t new. What is new is the fact this epidemic is now being addressed on the state and federal levels.
“Some days I still can’t believe my cousin is missing. It’s so hard to ingest that she is gone. My goofy, funny, happy, crazy, trusting, little cousin Ida is gone. My brain has a hard time accepting that fact. On the other hand my heart wants to find her and soothe and comfort my aunty Becky’s broken heart. Addressing this MMIW epidemic is not easy. It’s painful, emotionally draining and incredibly sad but it must be done if we want change. We must have these difficult conversations and discussions and tell these tragic heart-wrenching stories to help lawmakers understand the need for change and solutions,” Morgan said.
Update: On Nov. 26, 2019 President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order establishing the task force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, entitled, “Operation Lady Justice.” The task force will address the issue of Missing and Murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and children. Operation Lady Justice will be co-chaired by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Attorney General William Barr. The task force will report to the President twice over the next two years.
Rosemary Stephens, Editor-in-Chief, https://cheyenneandarapaho-nsn.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Dec.-1-2019.pdf