Gabby Petito’s case has received nonstop media attention and advice from the public.
Nicole Wagon, a woman from northern Arapaho, said the same care could have helped solve her daughters’ cases.
Indigenous people disappear and are killed in a greater proportion than other groups.
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For the past two weeks, people in America have been captivated by the story of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman who disappeared while on a cross-country road trip in a pickup truck with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie.
Local and national media fiercely covered the story. Police departments, the FBI, and search and rescue teams tirelessly pursued leads. Social media detectives meticulously tracked down Petito’s digital trail. People who had seen or interacted with the couple flooded the FBI hotline.
And on September 19, just over a week after his disappearance was reported, Petito’s body was found near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
Nicole Wagon, an indigenous mother and activist living on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, can’t help but wonder how the same care may have affected her daughters’ cases.
“I think if my daughters had half the coverage, maybe it would be solved,” Wagon told Insider.
Wagon’s daughter, Jocelyn, was found murdered in 2019. About a year later, she reported the disappearance of another of her daughters, Jade. Jade was found dead weeks later.
Wagon, an Arapaho woman from the north, is still searching for answers and seeking justice for her girls, who represent only two of the many indigenous peoples who have disappeared or been killed at higher rates than other groups.
A report from Wyoming found that the homicide rate for indigenous people from 2010 to 2019 was 26.8%, eight times higher than the homicide rate for white people. During a similar period of time, 710 indigenous people, mostly girls, were reported missing in the state. The report also found that only 30% of indigenous homicide victims made the news, compared to 51% of white victims.
Similar findings have been recorded elsewhere. In Montana, indigenous people make up 7% of the population, but represent 26% of missing persons. In Minnesota, indigenous peoples represent only 1% of the state’s population, but 9% of all murdered women and girls are indigenous.
And yet, the problem is largely underreported. After pressure from activists like Wagon, several states and the federal government have established task forces to tackle the problem.
Wagon said she is now known throughout Wyoming for her work. He attends marches, meets with government officials, persecutes law enforcement, and hangs up posters of missing persons.
“I’m advocating trying to make a difference,” Wagon said. “What can we put in place to help this epidemic that is happening for both sexes on our reservation?”
‘My daughters counted and I cared about them’
Jocelyn Watt, Wagon’s eldest daughter, and her partner Rudy Perez, both 30, were found dead from gunshot wounds at their home in Riverton, Wyoming, on January 5, 2019. The double homicide remains unsolved.
About a year later, Wagon reported that another of his daughters, Jade Wagon, disappeared. On January 21, 23-year-old Jade was found dead on the Wind River reservation. Jade’s death was deemed accidental, but Wagon said unanswered questions remain about the circumstances of her death.
Jocelyn’s gift was her voice, according to Wagon. He sang at funerals, often the song “Dancing in the Sky,” to honor members of his community who passed away, even though it had an emotional impact on him.
“For me it was a blessing, wow, look at how many lives my daughter touched in a short amount of time,” Wagon said, adding that Jocelyn made everyone feel valued.
Jocelyn’s younger sister, Jade, was a “beautiful and free spirit” who loved the outdoors, according to Wagon. She was respectful to her elders and deeply loved her grandparents, sisters, and children.
“You could hear her laugh in the crowd, she was so unique and proud,” Wagon said.
Wagon said his “heart goes out to the Petito family. That mother, I know that pain too well.”
But he added that it has been painful to see the swift action and overwhelming attention the case has received.
“Can you name a native, from coast to coast, who has received some kind of medium” similar to the Petito case, Wagon asked.
She is glad that Petito’s parents were able to find their daughter and is grateful that the case has shed some light on others in Wyoming, adding that “native voices are now being heard.”
But he wants people to know that his daughters are not just a statistic.
“Their lives counted and mattered,” he said. “And nobody knows his story.”
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