Jacqueline Keeler: The search continues for Olivia Lone Bear in North Dakota

‘No crime scene’: The search for Olivia Lone Bear

Native families grapple with scant support to locate their missing loved ones.
By Jacqueline Keeler
High Country News

Thirteen minutes into Taylor Sheridan’s feature film Wind River, the body of a young Native woman from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming is discovered by the protagonist, a white hunter who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That spurs a multi-agency investigation, and within days, officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local and tribal law enforcement face off in a bloody, Tarantino-style shootout with the bad guys: oil workers living in the company-owned temporary housing known as man camps.

According to Sheridan, the film is “inspired by true events” and the “thousands of actual stories just like it,” involving the sexual assault of Native American women on reservations across the country. Yet Native families seldom get such dramatic closure or swift justice. Rarely do local or federal law enforcement officers respond so quickly or take bullets in defense of tribal members. Had Sheridan really wanted to be true to life, he would have ended his film with the family never finding the body of their loved one, much less tracking down the culprit. On October 24, 2017, a real Native American woman, a 33-year-old mother of four named Olivia Lone Bear, disappeared from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. Her family has been frantically searching for her ever since. Like so many others, though, they’ve run up against uncooperative law enforcement agencies, which are themselves stymied by jurisdictional complications and a lack of resources. “(Tribal police) told us they couldn’t investigate Olivia’s disappearance because there was no crime scene,” her cousin, Matthew Lone Bear, told me in February, shortly after the Bureau of Indian Affairs took over the investigation from the Three Affiliated Tribes police.

There is no reliable official database recording the names or even the number of missing and murdered Native women in the United States, but the scattered data available paint a frightening picture. The blog Justice for Native Women, run by Makoons Miller-Tanner, Ojibway from Minnesota, uses crowd-sourced information to put names and faces to Native women who have disappeared or whose bodies have been found but whose deaths remain unsolved.

Week after week, more names and photos are added. Each listing begins with the phrase, “This is ______________,” followed by a photo of the woman. Many of them are selfies, showing the women and girls as they wanted to be seen: vibrant and perfectly made-up young people, their smiles brilliant with life and hope. “This is Nicole Morgan, missing from New Mexico since 2018. … This is Val Caye, missing from Washington since 2018. … This is Ashley Loring/HeavyRunner, missing from Montana since 2017. … This is Natalie White Lightning, murdered in North Dakota in 2014.”

Olivia Lone Bear was last seen on October 24, 2017, in New Town, North Dakota, a community on the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. Photo: Searching for Olivia

These data are kept mostly in the hands of civilian stewards. Justice for Native Women records about 600 names. Another Native activist, Annita Lucchesi, keeps an “MMIW Database” with over 2,500 names. The initials “MMIW” stand for “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.”

“We all know someone,” said Tami Truett Jerue, executive director of the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, during a congressional briefing in 2017. “I remember, as a child, hearing my mother, my aunts and their friends at the kitchen table lowering their voices and whispering about those women in our families who went missing or were murdered.” The murder rate for Alaskan Natives is nearly double that of other Alaskans.

In October 2017, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced a bill that would address the lack of data on missing and murdered Indigenous women and seek to improve law enforcement protocols and collaboration between jurisdictions. It’s called Savanna’s Act, after Savanna LeFontaine-Greywind, who vanished from Fargo, North Dakota, in August 2017. She was a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, and her selfies document her happiness at her pregnant belly and the new life growing inside her. Her body was found, wrapped in plastic, after an extensive eight-day community search. In an unbelievable act of cruelty, her white neighbor cut Savanna’s daughter from her womb, stole the baby, and then murdered the young mother.

In 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center, North Dakota accounted for 125 of 5,712 nationwide cases of missing Native women. Experts believe that the actual number is considerably higher, given that police departments are not required to identify victims as Native American. A 2013 National Congress of American Indians policy brief notes that Native women experience two-and-a-half times the rate of violence and double the rate of rape or sexual assault compared to American women of all other races. In some counties, Native women experience 10 times the rate of murder. Even in suburbia, Native American women are assaulted at nearly three times the rate of their non-Indian counterparts.

In Canada, a government report cited 1,181 police-recorded incidents of First Nations women missing or murdered between 1980 and 2012. However, an advocacy group estimated that the actual number was closer to 4,000. Since there are far more Native people in the U.S. than in Canada, the number here is likely much higher.

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp speaks last October about missing and murdered indigenous women, including Lakota Rae Renville, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Bands of North and South Dakota, who was forced into sex trafficking then murdered. Still image: YouTube

The Fort Berthold Reservation, which Lone Bear called home, spans nearly 1 million acres, an area about the size of Rhode Island. Named for a former U.S. Army fort, the reservation is home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, otherwise known as the MHA Nation or Three Affiliated Tribes, which together have about 16,000 members.

The reservation is also home to nearly one-third of the famous Bakken shale formation, which, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, holds somewhere between 4.4 to 11.4 billion barrels of oil. That oil is recoverable using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a process by which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected at very high pressures underground to release the oil from the rock. The tribe has benefited monetarily from the drilling, but tribal members are worried about the environmental damage involved, along with the violence brought by transient workers and the corruption that has festered in the tribal government ever since the boom’s earliest days.

The community is starkly divided between the haves and the have-nots. Tribal members who inherited fractional ownership of energy-rich allotments enjoy oil royalties from their mineral leases, while the rest receive few benefits, even though they have to help carry the burden — higher housing costs, violence and drug use. Former Chairman Tex “Red Tipped Arrow” Hall has dubbed this new paradigm “sovereignty by the barrel.” By 2014, toward the end of what was a nearly 10-year-long boom, the tribe was pumping 333,000 barrels of crude a day, slightly less than Oklahoma’s oil production. In three years, the MHA Nation had paid off $100 million in debt and had grown its operating budget to $57.7 million, while squirreling away nearly $250 million for “special projects” funding.

It was probably not the path envisioned by Chairman George Gillette in 1948, when, in tears, he signed away 150,000 acres of land for the construction of Garrison Dam, solemnly declaring, “Our Treaty of Fort Laramie … and our Constitution are being torn to shreds by this contract.” The 1956 construction of the dam, which created Lake Sakakawea (named for the Shoshone Hidatsa woman known as Sakajewea, who guided the Lewis and Clark Expedition), flooded the best bottomland farmland on the reservation and devastated the tribe. Residents of traditional communities were relocated by the Army Corps of Engineers to tract homes in places like New Town, created in 1950. Tight-knit communities up and down the Missouri River became unraveled, and over 2,000 Native Americans lost their farms entirely.

It was into this landscape that Olivia Lone Bear was born, and it was from her father’s ranch house along Highway 23 — lined with oil well flares that give the place a hellish aspect — that her voice was last heard. Raised a citizen of a confederation of three surviving nations, around a lake ostensibly named to honor a woman of her tribe, she lived almost half her life in the midst of a Wild West-style oil boom that brought thousands of out-of-state workers to town, mostly without their families, and with money to burn.

It was a difficult place to be a woman. A bartender at the tribe’s Four Bears Casino told me that she and her friends party only in their own apartments. They never go out because it’s too dangerous. Every night after work, the bartender is walked to her car by the casino’s security.

A missing poster for Olivia Lone Bear distributed by the North Dakota Highway Patrol. Image: Searching for Olivia

But Robin Fox, a 38-year-old mother of three, lacked this sort of protection. On March 5, 2014, her car was found outside a local country club, door ajar, dome light on, keys in the ignition, and a large sum of cash and her cellphone inside. Fox was nowhere to be found.

A Facebook group was created and flyers printed with photos of Fox, a Three Affiliated Tribes member who was raised in Seattle, and directed the Rockview School for Tots in the reservation community of Parshall. In one photo, she is elegantly dressed in formal attire, and in another she proudly wears teal and blue to celebrate the Seattle Seahawks’ 2013 Super Bowl championship.

When volunteer searchers showed up to help find Fox, they complained that tribal law enforcement was, at best, unhelpful. “Two hostile (tribal police) officers were waiting for us when we arrived in Roseglen to search,” Lissa Yellow Bird-Chase alleged on Facebook. “We were told, ‘We aren’t here to help you’; ‘You don't need to be here’; ‘There really is no missing person.’” A Bismarck Tribune article, one of the few media reports on Fox’s disappearance, took note of tribal law enforcement’s lack of communication regarding the case, both with the press and other local law enforcement agencies.

Fox was found less than an hour later, a few hundred feet from her vehicle. Although family members say the circumstances of her death were “suspicious,” no cause of death was made public, and no media outlet ever did a follow-up story.

The violence that seems to pervade this corner of the world also seeped into the life of Olivia Lone Bear. She once worked as a bartender at Ranchman's 23 Steakhouse and Saloon Restaurant in New Town, an establishment frequented by the mostly white oilfield workers. A waitress who worked with her described Lone Bear as a nice person and a good worker, but told me that she was fired from the job after the wife of an ex-boyfriend came in, confronted Lone Bear and beat her up, repeatedly slamming her head onto the pool table.

In response to all the violence, tribal activists pushed the MHA Nation to become one of the few Indigenous nations to outlaw sex trafficking. “Loren’s Law” — named after the late Loren Whitehorn, an MHA tribal member and sexual assault victims’ advocate — was passed in 2014 following numerous reports of sexual assault in man camps on or near the reservation.

The law’s effectiveness is hampered by the tribe’s limited jurisdiction, which extends only to enrolled members of federally recognized tribes. In 2015, after two years of Republican opposition, the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA) was finally amended by Congress to expand tribal jurisdiction to non-enrolled defendants who commit domestic violence on reservations. This is critical, given that Native women are, more often than not, assaulted by non-Indians. The MHA Nation, however, still has not met the federal requirements necessary to gain these expanded VAWA powers, and the law does not cover sexual assault outside of a committed relationship or due to sex trafficking.

If a tribal member like Lone Bear is trafficked or assaulted by someone the tribe cannot prosecute, the FBI has jurisdiction. However, the FBI declines to prosecute the vast majority of cases, and with six counties sharing jurisdiction over the reservation, sheriffs are reluctant to respond due to the possible jurisdictional confusion.

In February, in New Town, North Dakota, population 2,500 and home to the tribal headquarters, I sat across the table from Jim Hofhenke as he held court at a small table in a tiny, hole-in-the-wall bar on the main drag. Hofhenke, who is white and in his 50s, is from California, but spends most of his time working in the oilfields here. Occasionally, other white men approached him tentatively. He barely acknowledged their presence, saying little and hammering back beer after beer from a box at his feet. He was the last person to hear from Olivia Lone Bear.

He told me that he and Lone Bear were friends. He called her his “running buddy,” and said he lent her his truck whenever she needed it. The day she went missing, a Tuesday, she sent him a text message saying she was doing laundry in her father’s house on Highway 23. Hofhenke said he later went by the house to drop off some groceries, but no one answered the door. When her family came home, she was gone — without taking her jacket, her debit card, her wallet or her cellphone. She did, however, apparently take Hofhenke’s pickup. The last image the family has seen was taken by a security camera at a New Town bank, which showed Lone Bear stopping at a nearby store in Hofhenke’s metallic-gray Chevy Silverado. The police, citing the ongoing investigation, have not told the family exactly when the photo was taken.

That Friday, the Lone Bear family reported Olivia missing, but police were slow to begin a search or even send out a statewide alert. “(The MHA Nation police) did not act on the missing person’s report until the following Monday,” Matthew Lone Bear told me. “And news couldn’t report and put it on air until the tribal police department filed a police report.”

The family has criticized the tribal police’s apparent unwillingness to prioritize Olivia’s disappearance. They allege that on the second day of the search, lead detectives berated Tex Lone Bear, Olivia’s father, telling him: “This is not the only thing going on with the Fort Berthold Reservation.”

“It set the tone for how they treated it,” Matt Lone Bear said. “They don’t treat it with urgency.”

He believes tribal police investigators looked for excuses not to check out tips. Lone Bear claims they dismissed a tip on a truck that looked like Hofhenke’s because the informant didn’t give the color of the license plate. Family members say they’ve asked whether the police tried to locate the truck via an onboard OnStar system, but their questions have gone unanswered.

The police denied these allegations to local news outlets at the time, but would not discuss any aspect of the case with High Country News. The case is now being handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs police.

As the weeks went by and the water in Lake Sakakawea slowly began to freeze, the family urged the tribal police to conduct a water search. Although other agencies offered to help — the North Dakota Game and Fish Department offered its sonar to help in the search — the tribal police declined it. At the same time, tribal police told the family they couldn’t search the lake because they didn’t have any boats available. Matt Lone Bear finally forced the department to act: He posted a photo on Facebook of various watercraft sitting unused in the police supply yard, sparking public outcry.

With tribal law enforcement making such a lackluster effort, the family was forced to pick up the slack. The tribe lent them offices from which they could coordinate the search, and they credit Chairman Mark Fox for his support. The tribe’s Victim Services paid for searchers’ hotel rooms for about two months.

Matt Lone Bear, who is 30, sat in Olivia Lone Bear Search headquarters, wearing heavy Carhartt coveralls to keep out the February chill. He told me that when an experienced search team out of Roosevelt County, Montana, showed up, they were impressed by the family’s headquarters — but not by local law enforcement. “They asked, ‘Where’s law enforcement? This should be full of police officers.’ This was the first time they’d ever seen civilians running a search.”

The space is well-organized, stocked with water bottles, snacks and flyers. With the help of locals, the family extended the ground search to communities far from New Town, such as Minot and Dickinson, North Dakota. As of late April, they were still searching, though the number of volunteers had fallen drastically. Olivia Lone Bear’s aunt, her father and her cousin seemed reluctant to leave search headquarters. It was if by staying and remaining in active search mode, they could create a talisman that would protect their loved one, wherever she might be.

Jacqueline Keeler is a Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota writer and contributor to The Nation, Yes! Magazine and other publications. Her book The Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears is available from Torrey House Press. Follow @jfkeeler on Twitter.

This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on May 7, 2018.

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