Count, create, speak: 3 ways Wisconsinites are helping missing and murdered Indigenous women

Gov. Tony Evers creates clay hearts, alongside students, teachers, and community members, as part of the school art project called "Hear Spirits."

By Salina Heller

November 23, 2023

It was 2015 and 30-year-old Jacinda Muir had just graduated school to become a CNA in western Wisconsin. The youngest of five kids, she loved children and had a heart of gold, according to her sister, Stacy Byerlay.

But on May 17 of that year, Jacinda’s life was cut short. She was murdered by her on-again off-again boyfriend.

Jacinda is one of an alarming number of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) in the state. Wisconsin, like much of North America, is only beginning to tackle this silent crisis. To start, the state created a task force hosted by the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ). Its mission: addressing the rates of “abduction, homicide, violence, and trafficking of Indigenous women in Wisconsin.”

Jacinda Muir was killed in 2015 after being lured to a dog park by her estranged boyfriend.

Addressing the Epidemic

“It’s a historical fact that Indigenous women have dealt with many traumas, domestic situations, relocations, and more,” Byerlay said. “This all makes Indigenous women easy targets.”

The FBI’s National Crime Information Center reported 5,203 missing Indigenous girls and women in 2021, the most recent year for which numbers are available.

In Wisconsin, Attorney General Josh Kaul said there aren’t state-specific numbers, and that’s part of the problem he says the task force is going to fix.

“Working to get the data is what we think is an important step to identifying solutions,” Kaul said.

Kaul said the group is pinpointing human trafficking, drug issues, and questions over jurisdiction as sources of the crisis. When it comes to investigating crimes, local law enforcement is sometimes unclear about laws over tribal lands—and similarly, tribal law enforcement is sometimes uncertain of their boundaries.

Navigating the Systems

Indigenous tribes have tribal sovereignty in the US, which means they have the inherent authority to govern themselves. These governments provide law enforcement, sometimes first-responder services, and court systems to protect their members and maintain law.

Tribal governments are crucial to economic development and improvement of daily life, just like state and local governments give structure to their communities.

They can enact and enforce stricter or more lenient laws, both civil and criminal, than those of the surrounding state where they are located, but often collaborate and cooperate with the states.

Gov. Tony Evers said he believes in working together to improve the tribal nations in the state.

“I am a firm believer that tribal nations in Wisconsin are sovereign and that the people in charge of that leadership are my equals,” Evers said. “I feel very strongly about this issue.”

Barb Blackdeer-McKenzie of the Ho-Chunk Nation said it can sometimes be unclear or intimidating for victims and families to navigate the court systems both inside and outside the tribe—which is often “why people don’t go after their attackers.” She said it’s especially confusing if people move off tribal lands or non-tribal members are involved in cases. They’re uncertain of which system to turn to.

“They don’t know their rights and don’t have advocates to know the twists and turns,” Blackdeer-McKenzie said. “It’s a challenge.”

Using Art for Change

Photo courtesy Ho-Chunk Nation

Help in combating the crisis is coming from an unexpected group in Wisconsin: students.

In Jacinda Muir’s hometown, the rural community of Black River Falls, students have taken special interest in creating a meaningful art project—a permanent installation titled “Heart Spirits.”

Students are creating clay hearts, one for each of the missing and murdered people in the state since 1980, and later showcasing those representing Indigenous women. They’re inviting community members, tribal leaders, and lawmakers to join in all of their events. They’ll host another “Heart Spirits” in March.

“It’s a way to make people understand—to start to touch peoples’ hearts,” Blackdeer-McKenzie said.

She said teachers encouraged the students to talk about each missing or murdered person as they made their hearts: “What would their lives have been like if they had not been cut short? What would their story have been?”

The students took the project further with a reveal of the permanent art piece at the high school and community dinner on national MMIW Day.

Preventing More Abductions

Photo courtesy Ho-Chunk Nation

Blackdeer-McKenzie, who has been dubbed a “community healer,” was a volunteer who also led female students each week leading up to the dinner, in making ribbon skirts. The skirts are traditional regalia to celebrate the indigenous culture, strength, and connection. The students wore them to serve the community dinner.

She said simply gathering with the students and talking “was where the magic was made.”

“Being a human services worker for 30 years, I can tell you it was by far the easiest and most effective prevention program I have ever participated in,” said Blackdeer-McKenzie.

Teaching cultures and arming the kids with compassion gave everyone confidence.

“I think it’s that something extra that, if they should be in a compromising situation, it may be able to help them,” she said. “How? Maybe fighting an abductor a little harder, fighting an assault with everything they’ve got, saying no to illegal substance abuse, helping peers avoid situations, and maybe even saving themselves or others from being trafficked.”

Breaking the Cycle

Photo courtesy Ho-Chunk Nation

Blackdeer-McKenzie is proud students can work on a real problem in the community, and hopes others will take notice and help break “negative, unhealthy cycles.”

With a heart created for Jacinda, Stacy Byerlay said she hopes the art installation messaging and the state’s efforts will come together in a powerful way—so there are no more painful legacies playing out across Wisconsin.

“Each missing or murdered person is someone’s family—someone’s person—and they are loved,” Byerlay said. She said she hopes sharing Jacinda’s story will help.

“She was one in a million and I miss her every day.”

Finding Help

Information and assistance for crime victims can be found at the Department of Justice’s website here.

Author

  • Salina Heller

    A former 15-year veteran of reporting local news for western Wisconsin TV and radio stations, Salina Heller also volunteers in community theater, helps organize the Chippewa Valley Air Show, and is kept busy by her daughter’s elementary school PTA meetings. She is a UW-Eau Claire alum.

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