Years after landmark study, number of missing Natives in Nebraska has nearly doubled

May 31, 2024, 8 a.m. ·

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Day memorial walk
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Day memorial walk at Turner Park in Omaha on May 5, 2024. (Photo by Naomi Delkamiller/Flatwater Free Press)

LINCOLN — Lestina Saul-Merdassi still remembers the question she asked herself when her cousin went missing.

Will someone in power try to find him? Will anyone? 

Her cousin, Merle Saul, went missing from Grand Island in 2015. He’s one of an estimated 4,200 unsolved cases of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives nationally, as reported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

“I feel like he was basically written off as a transient, written off because he suffered from alcohol-related issues,” said Saul-Merdassi, an Omaha resident and member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate Tribe, during a 2023 legislative hearing. “People did not take into consideration that he is a United States veteran, and he risked his life in the Vietnam War for this country.” 

In 2019, the Nebraska Legislature sought to better understand the reason behind the disproportionate number of missing Indigenous women and children in the state. Lawmakers directed the Nebraska State Patrol to investigate and produce recommendations to address the issue. 

Five years later, few of those recommendations have been implemented. And the number of reported cases of missing Indigenous people in Nebraska has jumped from 23 in 2020 to 43 in 2024. 

Law enforcement, state officials and activists offered a range of explanations for the rise in reported cases and seeming inaction on the report’s recommendations.

Better counting and awareness could be behind part of the increase in known cases, the patrol said.

Leadership changes, the COVID-19 pandemic, historical distrust, and coordination challenges among law enforcement agencies have complicated progress, the report’s authors said. 

“Progress is not as fast as I would always like it to be, but I do believe that we are making progress,” said Judi gaiashkibos, a member of the Ponca Tribe and director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, which worked with the patrol on the report.

The report, released in 2020, put Nebraska at the forefront of states on the issue of missing Indigenous people. At the time it was only the second state in the country to mandate a report investigating these disparities. 

It uncovered some surprises – including that rates of missing African American and Indigenous boys and men outpaced the rate of missing Indigenous women. Other states undertook similar investigations, some using research methods first developed and used in the Nebraska report. 

Many of those other states have acted on their recommendations. Nebraska, for the most part, has not.

“When I look at the finished project and everything that I learned from it, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of, but at the same time, it’s also one of my biggest failures because we didn’t see it through,” said former Capt. Matt Sutter, who led the report for the patrol.

A need for action 

When lawmakers passed their bill in 2019 (Legislative Bill 154), Indigenous women and girls in Nebraska were reported missing at one of the highest rates in the country.

A 2018 analysis by the Urban Indian Health Institute indicated that 10% of Indigenous missing persons cases reported across 71 cities in the U.S. originated from Omaha and Lincoln.

“We needed somebody to do something,” recalled Omaha Tribe member Renee Sans Souci, one of the founding members of Native Women’s Task Force of Nebraska, a grassroots group dedicated to raising awareness about the issue.

The investigation required by the Legislature involved a series of well-attended listening sessions in Omaha, Santee, Macy, and Winnebago. Tribal and non-tribal residents attended, as did law enforcement and other organizations.

“We were there. And we were listening,” said patrol investigator Tyler Kroenke, who was then the lieutenant of a patrol area in northeast Nebraska that overlaps with reservation land. 

The resulting report identified three primary issues: jurisdictional uncertainty; lack of communication between law enforcement agencies; and racial misclassification of missing people.

And it identified contributing factors: poverty, high rates of domestic abuse, high levels of substance abuse and geographic isolation in some Native communities. 

Sans Souci already knew this. 

Months before the report was released, Sans Souci’s niece, Ashlea Aldrich, 29, was found dead in a field near her boyfriend’s house, according to local news reports. The family told the Sioux City Journal that they had made dozens of calls to tribal police over the years with concerns about possible domestic violence against Aldrich, but said nothing was done. 

The death certificate obtained by the Journal listed her immediate cause of death as “hypothermia complicating acute alcohol toxicity” and characterized her death as an “accident.” Aldrich’s family disagrees.

“We have to be our own detectives, our own attorneys, and often it’s the families who have to search for their missing loved ones,” Sans Souci said. “My sister has to live with that every day.”

Four years after Aldrich’s death, activists said uncertainty and a lack of trust persist. 

“I believe some of that could go back to colonization and the U.S. Calvary, and how they violated our people, our women and our rights,” Saul-Merdassi said. 

Lestina Saul-Merdassi takes part in a Round Dance at Turner Park
Lestina Saul-Merdassi (center) takes part in a Round Dance at Turner Park in Omaha on May 5, 2024. Saul-Merdassi, an Omaha resident and member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate Tribe, is the youth program director at the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition. (Photo by Naomi Delkamiller/Flatwater Free Press)

Investigating missing Indigenous person cases often boils down to a complicated “turf battle” between law enforcement agencies, said State Sen. Tom Brewer, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe who introduced the 2019 bill. Those can include some combination of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal police, and state and local law enforcement.

“Failure to communicate between these agencies have left a no man’s land where people can fall through the cracks,” said Brewer, a Republican, at a 2019 hearing.

Report fails to spur immediate change

The report ultimately recommended the patrol take nine measures, including forming a separate law enforcement task force for missing persons and establishing a standardized policy for reporting missing persons. 

The task force was never formed. A statewide standardized policy for reporting missing people has yet to be adopted by individual agencies across the state. But the patrol says progress is happening in other ways.

The report also recommended recruiting more Native Americans to the patrol. Just one Native applicant has been accepted out of 22 who applied since 2019, according to the patrol.

The report encouraged tribal and non-tribal law enforcement agencies to enter into memorandums of understanding. Law enforcement agencies have entered into zero MOUs for reporting missing people since the report.

“We have not (talked with tribal law enforcement) nor have we been invited, as far as I know, to any committee meetings. But really the beginning of this is collaboration and regular contact with tribal law enforcement,” said Col. John Bolduc, who heads the State Patrol.

Superintendent Col. John Bolduc
Superintendent Col. John Bolduc talks to a reporter at the Nebraska State Patrol headquarters in Lincoln on March 26, 2024. (Photo by Naomi Delkamiller/Flatwater Free Press)

Many of the larger issues are not unique to Nebraska. Disparities in how missing persons cases are reported and handled by different police agencies poses significant challenges across the country, according to a 2022 FBI report

This lack of uniformity complicates data collection and impedes swift, coordinated responses, which are critical in the early hours of a disappearance.

The Nebraska report found that 31% of the 51 responding law enforcement agencies didn’t have a clear policy on how cases should be reported.

“There were a lot of ways we could have seriously improved the problem by not doing a lot other than communicating better, knowing who’s who and (who) to call,” said Sutter, who was reassigned after the report was published and later fired from the patrol for releasing confidential information unrelated to the report.

The patrol did adopt several recommendations, including one on cultural awareness training for its troopers, before the report was finalized. 

It denied a request to view copies of other agreements with local and tribal law enforcement agencies and training materials. The patrol cited an exception in the public records law for “investigative” documents. 

Bolduc said the patrol is committed to making progress. He pointed to the agency’s involvement with the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force and the Siouxland Safe Trails Task Force – a partnership established in 2021 between the FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs and other law enforcement agencies to help solve serious crimes on reservations.

One state patrol trooper was cross-deputized with the FBI in January of 2023 and serves on the Siouxland Task Force.

“The Nebraska State Patrol was the very first agency to step up and offer a full-time Task Force officer … So I think that’s very indicative of the willingness to work together,” said Kevin Hall, a supervisory special agent with the FBI who oversees Siouxland.

From January through November of 2023, the task force helped locate five children, according to Hall.

The partnership has been very effective, Bolduc said.

“(Our) investigator is on tribal land weekly, if not daily, in handling cases there and building relationships with tribal police and other agencies,” he said.

Bolduc said the jump in missing Indigenous people reflects more accurate reporting – the patrol has stressed the importance of including race in missing persons reports. 

In the 2020 report, which pulled cases from several sources, 8% of missing cases in Nebraska listed race as “unknown.” As of May, nearly 6% of the 644 active missing cases on the patrol’s website list the race as “unknown.”

“We need better collaboration, communication, and data collection. And I think we’re making progress toward those,” Bolduc said. “I’ll let you know when we’ve arrived, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Problem is bigger than law enforcement

Advocates say law enforcement alone can’t solve the problems at the root of so many people going missing.

“The blame isn’t just all about law enforcement, it’s about the humanity in the inhumanity of what’s happening in our state with our Native people,” gaiashkibos said.

Judi Gaiashkibos
Judi Gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, waits outside of the legislative chamber at the Nebraska State Capitol on April 18, 2024. (Photo by Naomi Delkamiller/Flatwater Free Press)

Native Americans nationally face significantly higher crime victimization rates compared to non-Natives, with nearly 58% of Native women reporting lifetime violence, according to the most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs collaborated on the report and made some commitments itself to address these underlying issues, including creating a task force and full-time staff position and pursuing legislation to mandate the use of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System by Nebraska law enforcement agencies.  

Like the patrol, the commission acknowledged it had not acted on every recommendation, but said progress has been made in other ways.

Last year, the commission helped spearhead legislation creating a missing Indigenous persons liaison in the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office. 

“I feel like it takes somebody who has been in this, been in these shoes or has had similar life experiences to understand some of the struggles that we go through as Indigenous people,” Saul-Merdassi said in a 2023 hearing.

The bill ultimately passed. In October, Grace Johnson of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, was appointed to the post. Her exact duties and responsibilities have yet to be finalized, the AG’s Office said in a statement. 

Johnson is currently building relationships with each tribe and working to establish local protocols for reporting missing cases, the commission said.

Grace Johnson
Grace Johnson, the liaison for missing and murdered Indigenous persons for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, speaks at an event at Turner Park in Omaha on May 5, 2024. “We are all going to heal when our women heal,” said Johnson, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. (Photo by Naomi Delkamiller/Flatwater Free Press)

Since starting the position, Johnson said she has helped find 10 missing people in Nebraska. She regularly meets with liaisons in similar roles around the country, she said.

Nebraska report became a model

Action on the report has been slow, but the process of creating it has become known nationally as the “Nebraska model.” 

“We did our very best to build on what kind of early states had done,” said Tara Richards, a  University of Nebraska at Omaha researcher who worked on the report. 

Richards has since gone on to conduct a similar report in New Mexico using the Nebraska model. Idaho also used the method to produce a study of its own missing Indigenous women. 

But many of those other states have moved beyond the initial probe.

Washington, the first state to mandate a report on missing Indigenous people, established a specialized unit within the state police to handle cases. 

In the wake of a report in Minnesota, the state created the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Office. The office created guidance for handling new and unresolved cases. 

When Nebraska lawmakers moved in 2023 to create the liaison position in the Attorney General’s Office, State Sen. Jane Raybould of Lincoln, a Democrat, said that at least six other states had already taken a similar action.

State Sen. Tom Brewer
State Sen. Tom Brewer, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, at this office in the Nebraska Capitol. Brewer introduced a 2019 bill requiring an investigation into the disproportionate number of missing Indigenous women and girls. (Photo by Naomi Delkamiller/Flatwater Free Press)

Brewer said some of the Nebraska report’s recommendations put too much responsibility on the patrol, including some that should have been shared with tribal law enforcement agencies.

The lawmaker said he wished he would have followed up with tribal leaders and said: “These are the findings. These are things we need to do. Of those, these will fit more into your wheelhouse than the State Patrol’s wheelhouse and because of that, we’re going to need you to take on some of the burden.”

Tribal law enforcement officials did not respond to numerous emails and phone calls seeking comment.

Brewer, who is exiting the Legislature at the end of the year due to term limits, said he plans to continue working in Native communities on issues, including items in the report.

Activists say they have noticed some positive change since the 2019 law, particularly increased awareness. Saul-Merdassi said the patrol has been inclusive over the past year, inviting community advocates to quarterly meetings, including Johnson. 

They talk about crime and human trafficking trends, but little about underlying risk factors in Indigenous communities, she said. Saul-Merdassi remains engaged on the issue. She helped organize an event in early May to recognize and honor missing relatives.  

“We can do all the things that make this movement public or known,” Saul-Merdassi said. “But it’s the families who suffer because they’re still dealing with the loss of their loved one.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

This article was produced as part of the Deepe Family funded spring 2024 in-depth reporting course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications. The course focused on the issue of missing and/or murdered marginalized women in Nebraska. This story was edited by Flatwater Free Press staff.