By Zach Benoit, of the Billings Gazette:
LAME DEER — What began with the unsolved death of 21-year-old Hanna Harris near here earlier this summer culminated Monday with as many as 200 people marching through town demanding justice for the victims of unsolved murders on American Indian reservations across the country.
“It’s about more than Hanna,” said Malinda Harris Limberhand, Harris’ mother. “There’s other families walking for loved ones, too. It’s not only our reservation that has so many unsolved murders. We’ve got seven in Montana and I’d think all seven have the same problem.”
Harris went missing early July 4. Her family and friends, and eventually the Bureau of Indian Affairs and FBI, searched for her for days.
On the evening of July 8, a search crew found her body along Muddy Creek a few miles from where her car was found earlier. The FBI is investigating the case, but has said little about it, including whether or not it’s a homicide.
Limberhand, however, is convinced Harris was murdered, largely because she said it’s far out of her daughter’s character to disappear for a stretch of time and leave her 11-month-old son at home.
An autopsy didn’t determine her cause of death and investigators have told Limberhand little else, other than that they’re still investigating.
In response to a question about if the FBI is investigating Harris’ death as a homicide and if there are any updates in the investigation, Patricia Speelman, with the Salt Lake City Division of the FBI, said in an email late Monday that the FBI is “still in the midst of the death investigation and are waiting on the toxicology report to determine the cause of death. As those results become available, we can give a more definitive answer.”
That lack of information, and what Limberhand views as a lack of effort, resulted in Monday’s “Justice for Hanna” rally, which called on local, tribal and federal officials to ramp up efforts to solve not only Harris’ death but the unsolved murders of scores of tribal members across the country.
“We can’t let this go on,” said Rennie Pena, a relative of Harris. “It started with just a small core, but, you know what, it’s grown and it’s grown and it’s grown. I can’t sleep because I have no peace because there’s a murderer out there somewhere.”
About 60 people gathered at the Bureau of Indian Affairs building on Cheyenne Avenue and started by forming a circle, holding hands and praying.
From there, the group marched about a half-mile down Cheyenne Avenue, picking up more than 100 more people along the way, while carrying signs pleading for justice and occasionally chanting to the Northern Cheyenne Tribal headquarters.
Limberhand has collected the names of 22 people who were killed dating to the 1970s and said the list continues to grow. She said she wants officials to solve each of those murders and bring peace to the families of those killed.
“It doesn’t matter whether it was violence or drunk driving,” she said. “They were still killed.”
Numerous people spoke at the rally, including family members of others who have died. Most of the speakers said the current justice system is broken, citing a lack of action or delayed investigations from law enforcement and few convictions upon arrest, and demanded more action from both tribal officials and law enforcement.
“It’s a sad day in Indian Country when we have our grandmothers come up here and cry and demand justice for their granddaughters,” said Toni Plumber, executive director of the Montana Native Women’s Coalition. She traveled from Fort Peck for the rally.
Acting Northern Cheyenne Chairman Winfield Russell and Ashland district representative Donna Fisher both said they agree with efforts to reform the tribal justice system and pledged their support to Limberhand and her family.
While Fisher called for the creation of a tribal police commission to oversee law enforcement, Russell said he’s taken the example of Harris’ death to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and other federal officials in Montana in an effort to shed light on the issues facing reservations.
“We support very strongly what (Limberhand) is bringing up here,” he said. “You have our support and we’ll do anything we can to support you in that way.”
Limberhand urged the community to hold officials accountable and demand justice. She said she wants Monday’s momentum to continue.
“We need to stand together as a community and say enough is enough,” she said.