Silenced voices: Wisconsin’s missing and murdered indigenous women

Gabby Petito’s case is sounding alarms nationwide for women whose disappearances have gone unnoticed or unreported.
Published: Sep. 22, 2021 at 10:27 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The investigation into the death of Gabby Petito has not only sent shockwaves throughout the nation but also sounded alarms for the missing indigenous women whose cases have gone unnoticed.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, there is no data currently being collected of missing indigenous women. Justine Rufus, co-chair of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force, said she does not have a ballpark figure but called the problem a “crisis.”

The DOJ created the task force last year. “In fact, attempting to address this lack of data was one of the primary reasons the MMIW Task Force was created,” Communications Director Samantha Standley told NBC15.

For Alysse Arce, a member of the Menominee tribe in northeast Wisconsin, this is all part of a problem that is decades old and deeply personal.

35 years ago, when Arce was just a few weeks old, her mother disappeared. According to Arce, Rae Elaine Tourtillott was last seen leaving a birthday party with two people.

“It was so unlike her to just be gone,” she said. “And then one day a beaver trapper was out and found part of her remains out in the woods.”

Arce said tribal police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have looked into her mother’s death, but there are still no suspects. She also noted patterns affecting other indigenous women gone missing. “You don’t see no coverage of that at all, and it’s just blows my mind,” she said.

Madison District 11 Alder Arvina Martin, who is also a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, said the issue is current and close to home.

“Some people might think Madison, we’re not on a reservation, [that] we don’t have these kinds of issues,” she said. “But you also have to think about trafficking as an issue.”

In the efforts of local government to protect Native people, Martin said there is progress as well as limitations. “It’s just such a multifaceted problem that it takes a lot to get everybody on the same page. And at this point we’re still not sure what that page should be,” Martin said.

Arce addressed the ongoing investigation into Gabby Petito, a woman first reported missing by her family on September 11. Her remains were found Sunday in Wyoming.

“I approve of all that help that she is getting, and I love it, that she’s getting that much help,” she said. “But when it comes to one of us Natives, we don’t get any of that kind of coverage, no sort of, any kind of help.”

Now, the attention to a widespread tragedy affecting indigenous women is growing, as this week, Rae Elaine Tourtillott would have turned 54 years old.

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