Disappearance of Native American teen adds to family tragedy

Angelina Newsom, Prism Guest Writer  |  Updated Jan 24, 2020 4:48am EST
When 16-year-old Selena Not Afraid disappeared from a Montana rest area on New Year’s Day, local indigenous communities launched into the tragically familiar work of rallying to the side a grief-stricken family as they searched. Her family promptly set up an incident command post at the rest area where she was last seen, complete with an RV. Volunteers stopped by the rest area day and night, delivering supplies to the family. Classmates and teachers of Not Afraid showed up to the rest area to stand in solidarity with her family and raise awareness, and media outlets gathered to talk to family members. Not Afraid was a member of two indigenous nations, Nakota, and Crow, and the nearby Northern Cheyenne and Crow Tribes offered their full support for her family.
Amid the wave of indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or gone missing, indigenous communities have come to know the drill. Law enforcement agencies rarely respond adequately, nor do large media outlets show up. It took the FBI more than a week after Not Afraid disappeared to finally issue a BOLO (be on the lookout). An Amber Alert wasn’t issued, suggesting law enforcement didn’t believe she was abducted. The same day the BOLO was issued, working dogs arrived on scene at the rest area command post to continue searching. Not Afraid disappeared just off tribal land, and when federal crimes occur on tribal lands, the FBI is tasked with investigating because of the unique relationship between the federal and tribal governments. Law enforcement on reservations are responsible for policing those lands, but also with coordinating with FBI agents, state police, and even county sheriff’s offices. There are often breakdowns in communications between these agencies, which contributes to inadequate responses when indigenous people go missing. 
In the absence of reliable help from law enforcement, rallying on social media has become commonplace among indigenous communities when one of our girls or women goes missing. We become unofficial detectives, investigators, and reporters, gathering and sharing information. This also includes mobilizing volunteer search parties to cover ground on foot, horse, or vehicle. Not Afraid’s family remained optimistic and hopeful throughout the search, but her body was found 20 days after her disappearance, less than half a mile from where she was last seen.
In the wake of her disappearance, many in the community reflected on tragedies her family has suffered over the years—including the violent deaths of her siblings and how these events foster suspicion between law enforcement and the Native community. Many have rallied around Not Afraid’s family for support while demanding answers to lingering questions surrounding her disappearance and death while remembering the fate of her siblings.
Not Afraid’s brother, Preston Bell, was 24 years old when he was killed by police after a high-speed chase in 2017. At the time, Bell was driving a vehicle that had been reported stolen and attempted to flee after police cornered him. Five officers fired 74 rounds into the vehicle, hitting Bell 17 times. A coroner’s jury later determined their use of force was justifiable. Police officers argued that Bell used the vehicle he was driving as a weapon against them during his attempt at fleeing, and the Billings Police Department released dash cam video of the incident. Recent data showed that “Billings has one of the highest rates in the nation for fatal officer-involved shootings.” The city also boasts half of Montana’s fatal officer-involved shootings since 2012. There were five fatal officer-involved shootings in Billings the year Bell was killed. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice published a study in 2014 found that Native Americans are the most likely racial group to be killed by police, saying that, “Native Americans, 0.8%of the population, comprise 1.9%of police killings. African Americans, 13%of the population, are victims in 26% of police shootings.”
In August 2018, Not Afraid’s sister, 22-year-old Tristan Gray, was killed by a vehicle in a hit-and-run in Billings. Police identified the driver, but refused to release his name publicly and didn’t charge the man in connection with Gray’s death. This fed the family and community sentiment that police weren’t taking action because the suspect is white and Gray was a Native American woman.
“He left the scene and had his mom call [911],” said Cheryl Horn—Gray’s aunt. It had been reported that both the suspect and his mother were present when the 911 call was placed, but investigators were unsure who actually made the call. During the course of this same reporting, authorities mentioned that the driver didn’t have a criminal history and the area where Tristan was struck is a known location for drug and alcohol activity. Horn says she discovered the identity of the suspect after searching social media and is currently pressing the Yellowstone County attorney to file charges. So far, Horn says her efforts have fallen on deaf ears, despite surveillance footage showing the suspect getting out of his vehicle to look at Gray before getting back in and driving away. Surveillance also showed several witnesses who didn’t come forward. The ones who did speak with law enforcement refused to name the other witnesses present the night Gray was killed. There have been no further reports from local media about her death.
The family is still seeking justice for one daughter, and must now bury the other. Speaking to KULR-8 news, Horn expressed gratitude for the amount of support her family received. Many indigenous families have cultural ties that differ from traditional American families. For example, the concept of “great-aunt” is simply another grandparent for many indigenous families. First cousins often refer to each other as siblings. In tribal communities, children grow up surrounded by entire extended families. This contributes to closeness experienced among tribal communities.
Because indigenous communities are so tight-knit, youth often close ranks when there’s trouble. The “no snitching” culture among young indigenous people sometimes hinders investigators from doing their job. As is the case with Not Afraid’s disappearance and death, family members usually suspect people know something and aren’t talking. Initial media reports said Not Afraid was likely intoxicated at the time of she went missing. The other passengers were adults whose version of events haven’t been consistent. During the search, law enforcement described Not Afraid’s disappearance as “suspicious.” It’s unclear whether the adults she was riding with that night gave her alcohol, but they were reportedly leaving a residence in Billings where a New Year’s Eve party had taken place the night before. According to a Facebook post written by Horn, none of the people in the vehicle with Not Afraid offered support to the family or helped with search efforts.
Given the way justice has been denied for Gray and police officers justified taking Bell’s life, it’s easy to see why indigenous community members may not trust law enforcement. Some may even fear them, believing that Native lives aren’t safe with local police. Meanwhile, the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls grows in Montana, where families often say law enforcement doesn’t care or investigate enough. Not Afraid’s Facebook profile photo pays tribute to her sister and calls attention to missing and murdered indigenous women. Written across the picture are the words “She is loved” and “Save our sisters.”
Angelina Newsom (She/Her) is a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe currently writing about politics, indigenous issues, culture and women’s rights for various outlets while navigating life in Europe. She can be found on Twitter @amsoufi_.
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