It is a cold, blustery afternoon in Ethete, Wyoming, and Greg Day shovels snow from the driveway of his cozy two-bedroom home for the fourth time this week. The wind scrapes the ground as the sun sets behind the snow-covered peaks of the Wind River Mountain Range The temperature is 20 degrees and Day wears little more than a flannel overtop his t-shirt.
To some, the attire might seem crazy, but after learning about Day’s decade-long disagreement with law enforcement about the disappearance of his daughter, it is a perfect representation of Day’s resilience.
“We’re Native Americans,” said Day. “We’re used to letdowns; we’re used to disappointment, but we fight.”
In 2012, Day’s daughter, Dawn, was found motionless in a lake on the Wind River Reservation, the seventh-largest Indian Reservation in the nation, as it spans 2.2 million acres and plays home to more than 26,000 people. An aspiring poet, a mother of three, and a shining light to those who knew her, Dawn’s death was classified as unknown by authorities because the autopsy revealed more than one possible cause.
Four years later, authorities found the body of Greg’s son, Jeffrey, in a waterway as well. Both were 28 at the time of their death and both the causes are still listed as unknown.
“She could walk into a room and if you were feeling bad, she’d have you laughing and make you feel good,” said Day. “Same way with her brother. They both had that same personality, you know? This world deserved my two kids, but it did not deserve me and I’m here and I’m going to fight for them.”
Incomplete data on missing persons is a problem that pervades Native American communities nationwide. In 2016, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the murder rate is 10 times higher than the national average for women living on reservations, and the third leading cause of death for Native women. The data, however, is underreported due to issues like misclassification. In 2018, a report by the Urban Indian Health Institute found law enforcement agencies were not always collecting the race and ethnicity of victims, and if it was unknown, the race and ethnicity would sometimes default to white.
It has made it more difficult for people like Desiree Tinoco, who is also part-Native, to advocate for change.
“The biggest problem is reservations are like a different country,” said Tinoco. “There is no real control the government has, for good reason, but when someone does go missing from the res, it’s hard to get that information.”
In 2019, the stay-at-home mom launched a missing person’s Facebook page for Wyoming as it is one of 13 states without a comprehensive statewide database. She is also part of the state’s newly formed Missing and Murdered Unit Task Force to tackle the issue. She says, oftentimes, bias and prejudice are the cause for underreporting, whether that is classifying the victim as the proper race or ethnicity or listing a cause of death.
“When the reservations do reach out for help, it seems to almost work against them,” said Tinoco. “There’s a lot of backlash. There’s a lot of criticism. There’s a lot of victim blaming. And instead of trying to understand tribes and how they do what they do, there’s a lot of blaming that happens.”
On a large scale, the issue can lead to further feelings of disenfranchisement and hopelessness within Native communities, but on a more personal scale, it leaves loved ones without closure or justice.
Six months ago, Day started the Dawn and Jeff I Won’t Be Silent nonprofit to help fight for the 31 other families on the Wind River Reservation who miss their loved ones daily.
“On Father’s Day, right at midnight, [Dawn] would call me, 'Happy Father’s Day,' and I still stay up until midnight waiting for that call,” said Day. “When we’d meet, sometimes talk over problems and stuff, Wendy’s was our place, and I haven’t been there since 2012. One day, I’m going to go in there and face my fears.”