When a Northern Cheyenne household questioned their daughter’s untimely death, authoritative indifference deepened their symptom — and their suspicions.
July 11, 2021, 3:00 a.m. ET
NORTHERN CHEYENNE RESERVATION, Mont. — The sound connected the doorway came astatine 3 a.m., erstwhile Pauline Highwolf opened it to spot a constabulary serviceman from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Don’t archer me,” she said, backing away.
The assemblage of her 26-year-old daughter, Allison Highwolf, had been recovered unsocial successful a motel country successful Hardin, the serviceman said. It was February 2015, and Ms. Highwolf, who had been surviving successful the motel with her boyfriend, had died of fume inhalation from a occurrence of unclear origin.
The authorities aesculapian examiner’s study said the mode of her decease was undetermined, but suggested suicide. Ms. Highwolf’s household suspected foul play, fixed the unusual circumstances. Ms. Highwolf had struggled with alcohol, her household members acknowledged, but she was a parent of 4 and they did not judge that she would instrumentality her ain life.
The fellow told constabulary helium had returned to the motel that nighttime to find the country filled with fume and Ms. Highwolf’s assemblage blocking the door.
Six years later, the circumstances of Ms. Highwolf’s decease stay a mystery, 1 of galore involving Native women who vanish oregon conscionable convulsive ends with alarming regularity. Her household and the section authorities hold that the lawsuit was shoddily handled and the archetypal probe haphazard, arsenic is often the lawsuit for Native Americans.
“They enactment her successful the class of ‘just different drunken Indian,’” said 1 of Ms. Highwolf’s sisters, Rhea New Holy. “But she wasn’t.”
Today, nether unit from her household and an advocacy radical successful California, Ms. Highwolf’s lawsuit is nether review. Pauline Highwolf is relieved it has been reopened, but she says a six-year effort to get determination underscores the request for alteration successful the mode specified cases are handled.
“We privation to support fighting, until we are heard,” she said. “And we privation everyone who mislaid idiosyncratic to support warring and cognize they’re not alone.”
In Montana, Native Americans, mostly young women, accounted for one-third of the 110 progressive missing persons cases successful the missing persons’ clearinghouse astatine the extremity of 2019, according to a 2020 study by the state’s Justice Department. Big Horn County, wherever Ms. Highwolf’s assemblage was found, and neighboring Rosebud County, location of the Northern Cheyenne reservation, pb the authorities for the fig of missing radical reported per capita. Last year, successful the aforesaid municipality wherever Ms. Highwolf died, the assemblage of Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, 18, who had been missing, was recovered successful a backyard. Her lawsuit remains open.
Nationally, akin cases often linger unresolved for years. The authorities mention deficiency of evidence, deficiency of resources oregon disorder among Indian, section and national jurisdictions. Victims’ families and their supporters blasted discrimination, apathy and incompetence by instrumentality enforcement.
Underreporting and mediocre record-keeping obscure the dimensions of the problem, but information that does beryllium suggests the hazard of rape oregon intersexual battle is 2.5 times higher for Native women, and execution is their 3rd starring origin of death, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.
“There’s a hesitancy wrong our communities to enactment with instrumentality enforcement due to the fact that instrumentality enforcement doesn’t attraction astir us,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee Nation subordinate who is main probe serviceman astatine the Seattle Indian Health Board and directs the Urban Indian Health Institute.
The Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act, 2 bills signed successful precocious 2020, projected channeling much national resources and attraction to these cases, improving cross-jurisdictional enforcement and information collection. But putting the alteration into enactment has been slow, advocates say, contempt stated enactment from President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo national who has made missing and murdered Indigenous women a argumentation priority.
Instead, a patchwork of committed radical and groups helps families hunt for missing loved ones and plead for afloat investigations of unexplained deaths.
Mary Kathryn Nagle, a lawyer who represents pro bono the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, calls the effort “the astir hopeless enactment of enactment you tin bash successful America.”
“No 1 successful a presumption of authorization is going to assistance you,” said Ms. Nagle, who is simply a Cherokee Nation citizen. “I deliberation a batch of families springiness up.”
Not the Highwolf family.
“I went connected a rampage of anger,” Pauline Highwolf said. “I privation to unrecorded to spot justness for my baby.”
A Strange Fire
Pauline Highwolf described her girl arsenic her “miracle baby,” calved amid complications parent and girl some survived. Growing up, Allison Highwolf had an effervescent personality, her parent said, and worked sporadically astatine the Boys & Girls Club successful Lame Deer. Sometimes she joined her parent astatine powwows.
“She was humble and loving,” Pauline Highwolf recalled. “And forgiving, nary substance what anybody did to her. She would spot radical making amusive of radical with addictions connected the street, and she would get huffy and say, ‘Don’t laughter astatine them. Don’t marque amusive of them. What if it’s 1 of us?’ It made america think. It made everybody think.”
Allison Highwolf had the archetypal of her 4 daughters, Rayven, portion inactive successful her teens. Three much daughters followed, but Ms. Highwolf’s transportation to the girls’ 2 fathers soon frayed. The daughters present scope successful property from 8 to 15.
“I was digging done her worldly and the letters she would constitute to her babies, and I conscionable sat present and cried,” Pauline Highwolf recalled. “She was a bully mother, a bully mama. She loved her kids truthful much. It was conscionable her relationships that went bad.”
At the clip of her death, Ms. Highwolf and her fellow were surviving astatine the Rodeway Inn successful Hardin, successful portion due to the fact that neither of their families approved of the relationship. The boyfriend, Stephen Auker, worked nights. Police said the occurrence successful the motel country started sometime betwixt his departure for enactment successful the precocious day and the clip Ms. Highwolf was recovered dead, astir midnight.
Mr. Auker did not instrumentality aggregate cellphone calls and substance messages seeking comment.
The region coroner did not let Ms. Highwolf’s household to spot her body, which was covered successful soot. She was autopsied astatine the authorities aesculapian examiner’s bureau successful Billings. A fewer days later, a mortician delivered her body, dressed successful a achromatic lace blouse, pants and moccasins her household chose for her, to the beforehand country of Pauline Highwolf’s single-story location connected the Northern Cheyenne reservation, wherever astir of her household inactive lives.
Mourners arrived astatine the location for her wake. Some brought earrings for Ms. Highwolf to wear. Ms. New Holy would play Dani and Lizzy’s “Dancing successful the Sky,” a opus astir young, untimely decease that Ms. Highwolf loved. But erstwhile the household opened the coffin, they gasped successful horror.
Ms. Highwolf’s look looked injured, with a scuff connected her feature and a bulging bruise connected her forehead. The household folded down her lace collar and pulled up her sleeves. Pauline Highwolf utilized her cellphone to photograph marks connected her daughter’s face, neck, wrists and hands. Fears that she had been beaten oregon strangled tormented them.
A toxicology study had confirmed the beingness of intoxicant and methamphetamine successful Ms. Highwolf’s blood. Her household did probe connected their own, unsure whether the levels were precocious capable to person rendered her incapable to flight the fume that filled the tiny motel room. Pauline Highwolf appealed to the constabulary for accusation but was rebuffed.
“Just due to the fact that your girl died, the satellite doesn’t revolve astir you,” she said 1 serviceman told her.
Efforts to prosecute a wrongful-death suit against the motel fizzled, Ms. New Holy said. Private investigators outgo much than the household could afford.
By 2019, 4 years aft Ms. Highwolf’s death, different sister, Kim Red Cherries, utilized Facebook to interaction the Sovereign Bodies Institute, a nonprofit successful California that helps Indigenous radical who are the victims of intersexual violence. Last month, aft astir 2 years of effort, Annita Lucchesi, the organization’s director, who had publically declared Ms. Highwolf’s decease a murder, arranged a gathering with the Montana authorities aesculapian examiner and different authorities to statesman a reappraisal of Ms. Highwolf’s case.
The astir four-hour meeting, held precocious past period and described to The New York Times by participants, raised much questions.
Jay Harris, the Big Horn County Attorney, reviewed copies of constabulary reports successful the meeting, including 1 that said the constabulary recovered an introduction successful a diary successful the motel country that could beryllium interpreted arsenic a termination note. It was the archetypal clip the household had heard of specified a note, and Pauline Highwolf remains skeptical of it. She has since seen a photograph of it and said she was unsure whether the handwriting was her daughter’s.
Pauline Highwolf besides powerfully objected to a connection successful the post-mortem study that her girl had “a anterior past of termination attempts.” That was not the case, she said. Mr. Harris said the accusation came from a Big Horn County instrumentality enforcement serviceman connected the nighttime of Allison Highwolf’s death, but could not explicate wherefore the serviceman included it. The serviceman has since near the department, and did not respond to messages near connected his cellphone.
The aesculapian examiner, Dr. Robert Kurtzman, and a subordinate of his unit who conducted Ms. Highwolf’s autopsy, reviewed the post-mortem report. They told Ms. Lucchesi, who represented the household successful the meeting, that the marks that Ms. Highwolf’s household photographed connected her look and cervix did not look successful photos taken earlier her autopsy.
The ceremonial home’s “preparation of the decedent for the viewing was inadequate, and did not conceal communal post-mortem artifacts which are commonly mistaken for traumatic injury,” Dr. Kurtzman, who reviewed the family’s photos, told The Times, recounting what helium told Ms. Lucchesi successful the meeting.
“There were nary interior oregon outer injuries indicative of strangulation,” helium said. “The origin of decease was intelligibly owed to c monoxide intoxication, arsenic a effect of fume and soot inhalation.”
Pauline Highwolf, the authorities aesculapian examiner and the Big Horn County Attorney hold that determination were important gaps successful the archetypal investigation. Of 3 cellphones recovered successful the motel room, the region lawyer and Ms. Lucchesi said accusation successful the record suggests lone 1 telephone was searched. The motel surveillance video, though mentioned successful the lawsuit file, is missing.
Without further answers, solution remains elusive.
“I inactive consciousness they’re successful the wrong, and committed a batch of violations that they’re not admitting,” Pauline Highwolf said of instrumentality enforcement.
She wants to enactment successful aboriginal lawsuit reappraisal meetings. The Big Horn County Attorney’s bureau expects that the reappraisal volition not beryllium completed until the fall.
In a connection connected Friday, Mr. Harris said his bureau would oversee a re-review “to guarantee that champion efforts person been made to uncover immoderate transgression enactment associated with Highwolf’s death.”
“In summation to moving with instrumentality enforcement investigators, my bureau is moving with representatives of the household to behaviour a afloat prosecutorial reappraisal of each grounds available,” the connection said. It concluded that “there is nary statute of limitations successful Montana for homicide, but clip is ever of the essence erstwhile the interests of justness and closure to household and loved ones is astatine stake.”
On 1 caller afternoon, Ms. Highwolf’s 4 daughters clustered astir their grandmother’s room table, making a decoration for their mother’s grave: a depiction of a reddish dress, a awesome of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement.
Ms. Highwolf is buried successful a parched hilltop cemetery wherever respective generations of her household lie, her sedate strung with lights that her household tin spot from their beforehand model astatine night.