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Daughter of a Wyoming tribal murder victim says justice goes beyond a conviction

Cassandra Burson struggles with the meaning of justice. She wonders what it really means to achieve this, especially in light of the tragedy murder of her father57-year-old Warren Jorgenson, in Lander in April.

Although the accused perpetrator is in custody awaiting trial, Burson questions whether a conviction alone will bring justice. A conviction changes nothing for her. Her father is still dead and the conditions that lead people to harm each other are still there.

According to Burson, the answer to what true justice would look like lies in the deep-rooted issues facing Native American communities, such as colonization and colonial trauma, which she believes are driving the disproportionately high rates of murder and missing persons . Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation and elsewhere.

Until these factors are addressed, rising numbers of homicides and missing persons will continue, she said.

The numbers underscore the reality of the epidemic of violence plaguing tribal communities in Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho.

The average homicide rate among Native people in Wyoming remains significantly higher than that among whites, despite making up 3% of the state’s population. According to a 2024 report from the University of Wyoming’s Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center (WYSAC), the 2023 homicide rate among indigenous people was 19.6 per 100,000. This is almost seven times higher than the murder rate among white people, as reported. in the report.

Fremont County in particular, which includes the reservation, has a high homicide rate, which is well above average. Six have been reported this year alone murders in the county, accounting for nearly a third of the total recorded for the entire state.

Not an easy solution

There is also a significant difference in homicide rates between Indigenous and white men. In 2023, the homicide rate among Indigenous men was 28.8 per 100,000, while for whites it was 3.7 per 100,000, according to the same report. The homicide rate among Native American women was comparably high: 10 per 100,000 people, compared to 2.2 per 100,000 among white women.

The homicide rate could be higher than recorded among indigenous peoples, said Lena Dechert, assistant investigator at WYSAC. That’s because some homicides on death certificates may be incorrectly characterized as accidental or suicide.

Indigenous people also accounted for 18% of all missing persons cases in Wyoming last year, with 110 people reported missing in Fremont, Laramie, Natrona, Carbon, Campbell and Albany counties.

This is the fourth year that Governor Mark Gordon’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force has commissioned the report in an effort to address the problem.

And while his role is to collect the data, ultimately any solutions and recommendations for addressing the problem must come from tribal leaders, families and grassroots organizers directly affected by the violence, Dechert said. (don’t attribute in the middle of sentences, do it before or after, but don’t chop it up)

“There is no easy solution or recommendation,” said Emily Grant, senior research scientist at WYSAC. “This is a problem that has been developing for hundreds of years and it will take some time to work on prevention, recovery and cure.”

This requires many groups to do their part, including law enforcement, the justice system and people like Burson, who work hard to prevent violence and help heal the rifts within the culture, Grant said.

Main causes

Burson, who works as a prevention specialist with the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, is also a member of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (must mention on first referral) Wind River. She believes that the solutions to combating violence come from centering the indigenous way of life, culture, language and having the right relationship with Mother Earth.

“That we be guided and guided by values ​​that are accountable to our human and non-human relatives of the natural world, rather than being guided by the values ​​of capitalism and consumerism,” she said. “We need to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations about the history of colonization and how it continues to manifest itself today through harmful social and societal norms, oppressive systems and structures that we participate in, are complicit in and continue to uphold.”

She further believes that ending violence requires understanding the root causes that underscore various forms of oppression, including racism, classism, sexism, capitalism, and other “isms.”

“Prevention says that we cannot end one form of violence without ending all forms of violence,” she said.

She said this includes environmental violence, pointing to a 2016 report from the Women’s Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network entitled ‘Violence on the Land, Violence on our Bodies’, which highlights the link between the environmental impacts of the extractive oil and coal industries. to the violence committed against women and children.

“When we heal the land, we heal our bodies,” she said.

Return to the community

Capitalism also has an impact on culture.

In a capitalist world, people learn to live and think as individuals competing against each other, Burson explained. In this world, people are told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, instead of seeing the world through the lens of a community where people care for each other.

“It’s that individualistic way of looking at things that pits us against each other, without thinking about our relationships and responsibility to each other and to Mother Earth. We are guided by the wrong values, which oppresses us even more,” she said.

She believes that the solutions to preventing violence are inherent in their language and stories and the ancestral wisdom that dictates both their relationship with the natural world and with each other.

“As we move forward in creating change and making the world safe and free from violence, we must first be guided by these values,” she said. “Our responsibility has to be to each other, and making sure we are accountable and that everyone is taken care of. And that is not done out of competition, but out of genuine love for each other.”

This also means taking care of each other, she added.

“We have to ask ourselves who is not at the table and who is not represented?” she said. “Those are our family members who are most in need and who need to be centered.”

Ultimately, the solutions lie in restoring their culture, she added, and practicing consent and reciprocity every day in harmony with Mother Earth and nature.

Burson admitted these are very difficult conversations, but she won’t stop pushing for the Indigenous worldview.

“Some will tell you that you just have to accept the Western worldview or the colonial settler project as a way of life, that it is just the way it is,” she said. “I refuse to accept this way of life.”

Jen Kocher can be reached at [email protected].

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