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Kasey Alerts, proposed FCC code could aid in Oklahoma's MMIP crisis

<i>Paula Goodbear (Cheyenne and Arapaho) holds a sign saying ‘No More Stolen Sisters’ while Toma Hubert Stands (Lakota), holding an American Indian Movement flag, helps her cross an Oklahoma City intersection during an MMIP Honor Walk on May 5, 2024.</i>
Sarah Liese
Paula Goodbear (Cheyenne and Arapaho) holds a sign saying ‘No More Stolen Sisters’ while Toma Hubert Stands (Lakota), holding an American Indian Movement flag, helps her cross an Oklahoma City intersection during an MMIP Honor Walk on May 5, 2024.

Near the front steps of the Oklahoma state capitol, about 50 activists gathered with signs and stories, filling the warm May air on a Sunday afternoon. It was Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, which fell on May 5 this year, when dozens of activists embarked on an ‘Honor Walk’ to shed light on an issue significantly affecting many of their communities.

Sweetleaf Pigeon — a Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Muscogee woman — was among the crowd of activists. She said she walks to honor her cousin, Dustin Pigeon.

“He was someone who would do anything for anybody,” Pigeon said. “He would give you the shirt off his back.”

She explained an Oklahoma City Police Officer named Keith Sweeney shot her cousin in 2017. Two years after Sweeleaf Pigeon’s cousin was killed, a jury found Sweeney guilty and recommended a prison sentence of 10 years.

But Sweetleaf was not just walking for Dustin Pigeon; she also walked in honor of three other people who died as a result of violence, including Jackson Yearby — a Muscogee, Choctaw and Seminole 17-year-old first reported missing in February 2023. Last month, Stillwater Police arrested Quinlan Phipps in connection with Jackson Yearby’s murder.

Stories like Sweetleaf Pigeon’s have continued to add up across the state.

According to a 2018 study by the Urban Indian Health Institute, researchers found Oklahoma ranked 10th among the states with the highest number of MMIP cases. One list from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System reported more than 80 Native American and Alaskan Natives are missing in the state, and 19 are unidentified. But some estimates go as high as more than 500 missing and murdered Indigenous Oklahomans, with many cases going undocumented.

There is no neutral MMIP database housing the comprehensive data needed to verify the exact number of cases nationwide, according to a statement released by the Indigenous Journalist Association.

<i>An MMIP honor walk attendee holds up two signs hoping to raise awareness and honor loved ones on May 5, 2024.</i>
Sarah Liese
An MMIP honor walk attendee holds up two signs hoping to raise awareness and honor loved ones on May 5, 2024.

The Roots of the Problem

At the Citizen Potawatomi Nation House of Hope in Shawnee, specialists help men and women through hard times, including those who have experienced intimate partner violence, stalking or sexual assault.

Melody Ybarra is a descendant of the Kiowa and Comanche tribal nations and works as a Domestic Violence Advocate there. She is no stranger to the MMIP crisis. She blames the effects of colonization for the growing number of missing and murdered Indigenous people, especially women.

<i>Last known picture of Shirley Ahhaitty Gokey.</i>
Melody Ybarra
Last known picture of Shirley Ahhaitty Gokey.

“So if you look back at Indigenous culture, if you look at things like rape and violence, that didn't happen against Indigenous women until colonization, until boarding schools,” Ybarra said. “It brought violence into our culture, which, if you look at our women back then, women were sacred.”

The federal government has begun taking notice of the problem. Last spring, Ybarra spoke to the Not Invisible Act Commission when the group visited Tulsa.

Following their hearings nationwide, the Commission published a report in 2023 detailing similar causes of the MMIP problem.

“Beginning with colonialism and the extermination of entire Tribes, AI/AN (American Indian/ Alaskan Native) peoples have experienced trauma through forced relocation, the creation of the reservation system, federal and parochial Indian boarding schools aimed at systematically erasing culture and language, forced sterilization, and other atrocities,” according to the report.

Ybarra spoke of a personal story, involving the disappearance of her grandmother Shirley Ahhaitty Gokey who was later found dead in the summer of 1978. Ybarra has advocated for Gokey’s case to be reopened. Recently, it was by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Now Ybarra waits to bring justice to her grandmother, while on the ground in Oklahoma, tribal government leaders are seeking ways to solve a problem that has been around for decades.

Proposed Solutions: Alerts for Missing Adults

Last month, an inter-tribal council of the state’s largest five tribes passed a resolution supporting a potential FCC code, saying it could “enhance the efforts to address the murdered and missing Indigenous peoples crisis.” The code would alert the public through phones, radios and televisions when an adult is missing or becomes endangered.

Department of Public Safety’s Director of Media Relations, Sarah Stewart, said the FCC code is similar to the state’s newly implemented Kasey Alerts. That alert system, named after missing Cherokee citizen Kasey Russell, is intended to help locate critically missing Oklahomans between the ages of 18 and 59.

Stewart said the main difference between Kasey Alerts and the potential FCC code is how they are programmed.

“So it would be a different code for us to use, but it shouldn't change anything other than how it's coded,” Stewart said.

The Kasey Alert system has been in place for five months, and only a few Kasey Alerts have been sent out and published on the OHP-Alerts Twitter Page. Stewart said the alerts have been successful so far, especially because they notify more eyes and ears to be on the lookout and assist in law enforcement’s recovery efforts.

“So since the Kasey Alert legislation went into effect, we have issued 15 Kasey Alerts,” Stewart said. “And they have been very successful in general, these alerts in locating people.”

Despite the general success of the Kasey Alerts, they have not proven to be effective for Indigenous people. Stewart said three Kasey Alerts have involved Native Americans, and two of those three are still active.

<i>Jason Kodaseet and Joseph Oldbear are still missing, and Trey Glass’ remains were found last month.</i>
Jason Kodaseet and Joseph Oldbear are still missing, and Trey Glass’ remains were found last month.

Private Investigator and citizen of the Caddo Nation, Darcie Parton-Scoon, participates in the State Chapter of the Oklahoma MMIP Board. She explained Kasey Alerts are state-issued, whereas the potential FCC event code would be a federal administrative change, impacting all of Indian Country and the nation.

While she believes the change could be good, she hopes it will be enforced properly – a similar hope she had for the Kasey Alert system.

We have a horrible missing persons response to every citizen, not just Indigenous people, but the more marginalized your group has become, the worse this response gets,” Parton-Scoon said.

Parton-Scoon emphasized the importance of considering certain risk factors when issuing a Kasey Alert or this potential FCC code. She pointed to data highlighting the disproportionate rate at which Indigenous women are assaulted, putting them at potentially more risk.

“If you say, ‘OK, this person is missing and they're female,’” Parton-Scoon said. “Then whoever's doing the police report can say, ‘Okay, one in five females are sexually assaulted, so there is some possibility there.’...But if you say they're Indigenous like there's an 87% chance that they'll be assaulted – that makes them far more in danger than their missing counterparts who are not Indigenous.”

Sweetleaf Pigeon expressed similar sentiments at the MMIP Honor Walk, saying she hopes law enforcement will see from the perspective of her and others who have had their loved ones violently taken from them.

They have to get down and see and speak with the people,” Pigeon said. “They have to listen and not just try to sweep everything under the rug. …Now, if it was their family or anybody close to them, that would have been a different story.” 

Public comments about the proposed FCC event code are due on May 20, and a final decision is set to be made at a later date. Until then, Sweetleaf Pigeon and Melody Ybarra will continue to honor the loved ones they have lost due to the decades-long MMIP crisis.

For Indigenous people experiencing violence, advocates at the StrongHearts Native Helpline, 1-844-762-8483, are always available to provide culturally sound support. For both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people facing domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233, is another resource. More MMIP resources are listed here.

Copyright 2024 KOSU

Sarah Liese reports on Indigenous Affairs for KOSU.