Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Vigil for Lenice Blackbird #JusticeForLenice #MMIW #NoMoreStolenSisters

'That was the last time I heard from her': Death of young Omaha woman under investigation following COVID-19 diagnosis

Update: This story has been updated with a comment from the FBI, received on July 27, 2020.

SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- Lenice Blackbird loved children and joking.

She always had a smile on her face and was beloved by her friends and family.

Shortly after she was diagnosed with COVID-19 in late June, she packed her things and left her home in Macy, Nebraska, for a cabin in a nearby park where she planned to quarantine herself until she recovered from the virus.

Her family feared it would be the last time they would see her, knowing the 25-year-old Omaha Nation woman already suffered from diabetes and cirrhosis.

On June 27, their fears were realized when Lenice’s two nephews found her body not far from the cabin where she had been quarantined.

“It’s been really hard not knowing what happened and frustrating because it’s not fair,” said Donna Blackbird, Lenice’s mother. “It’s not fair that I had to bury my daughter early, earlier than what I wanted.”

Michael Patrick O'Connor smudges Donna Blackbird, center, at a vigil held held for Blackbird's daughter Lenice Sioux City, Iowa, on July 25, 2020. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Standing on a windy hilltop under a sweltering sun Saturday evening, Donna Blackbird spoke to nearly 30 people gathered for a vigil for her daughter in Sioux City, Iowa. They gathered at War Eagle Monument, some 40 miles north of where her daughter died a month earlier.

In an earlier interview with Indianz.Com, Lenice’s family shared details of her death.

They said she was tested for coronavirus June 19 and learned her diagnosis on Monday, June 22. That same day, she left home to quarantine in a cabin owned by the Omaha Tribe, along with a friend.

At that time, she wasn’t showing symptoms of the virus, her aunt Irma Grant said. On Tuesday morning, Lenice called her mother.

“Mom, it’s kind of scary down here,” she told Donna Blackbird.

Donna Blackbird (right), mother of Lenice Blackbird, whose body was found June 27, 20020, after a brief bout with coronavirus, listens to a speech at a night vigil held in Sioux City, Iowa for her daughter on July 25, 2020. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

She told her mother that she thought she heard someone crawling on the roof of her cabin the night before.

“That was the last time I heard from her,” her mother said.

Lenice didn’t call her family after that, and didn’t answer when her family tried to reach her.

Her family reached out to a tribal health worker who was overseeing those quarantined in the tribe’s cabins, Donna Blackbird said. They asked the worker to check on Lenice.

After doing so, the worker told Lenice’s family that she wasn’t in the cabin.

Her family began searching for her, posting frantic messages on social media asking for Lenice’s friends to inform them if they knew where she was. They even traveled to Sioux City to look for her.

Lenice Blackbird, a 25-year-old citizen of the Omaha Tribe, died on June 27, 2020, shortly after being diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. A vigil took place in her honor in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 25, 2020. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Lenice suffered from alcoholism, and they worried she might have gone to the city to drink and spend time with her friends.

But no one in Sioux City had seen or heard from her.

Her family began to fear the worst, knowing Lenice couldn’t walk very far as her legs would quickly swell when she tried to do so.

“She would’ve come home if she walked away,” Irma Grant said.

Her family asked Omaha tribal police to check on Lenice, but they refused, saying they feared contracting the coronavirus.

Tribal police could not be reached for comment.

Irma Grant, aunt of Lenice Blackbird, whose body was found June 27, 2020, after a brief bout with coronavirus, listens to a speech at a vigil held in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 25. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

On Friday, June 26, Donna Blackbird said she begged the tribal health worker charged with overseeing the cabins to check on her daughter and look for her around the cabins. But he told the family that Lenice had “walked away.”

The next evening, the family decided to go to the cabin and search for Lenice themselves.

“It only took us 20 minutes to find her,” Grant said.

They found her about 100 yards from the cabin where she was staying. Two of Grant’s grandsons found Lenice’s already decaying body lying on sloping hills nearby.

An autopsy conducted on Lenice’s body later found that she had died of heat stroke due to underlying health conditions.

Michael Patrick O'Connor speaks at a vigil held for Lenice Blackbird, whose body was found June 27 in Macy, Nebraska, after a brief bout with coronavirus. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

But her family blames their tribe’s health and law enforcement workers for failing to look for Lenice after they had requested they do so.

“Did they really monitor her? Did they really take care of her?” Grant said. “I don’t think so because of the way that we found her.”

The only official acknowledgement of Lenice’s death came June 30, when the Omaha Tribe apparently issued a statement saying the tribe’s police were working with the FBI to investigate her death.

“The FBI investigates cases in tandem with the Omaha Tribal Police," FBI Special Agent in Charge Kristi Johnson told Indianz.Com on Monday. "The FBI has spoken directly to Lenice Blackbird’s family with respect to the outcome of our investigation.”

According to a July 1 story by Sioux City television station KTIV, the tribal statement said nothing about how Lenice died. Indianz.Com did not receive the statement and could not obtain a copy of it from an Omaha tribal council member.

Since Lenice’s death, her family has held vigils for her at Big Elk Park in Macy, at the Indian Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, under the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge in Omaha and in Sioux City.

At War Eagle Monument on Saturday night, Lenice’s older sister Terese Moniz said she hasn’t been able to sleep since her sister’s death.

“I don’t have peace, and I know that she’s with her dad,” she said. “I know she’s happy, but I don’t have peace because I don’t understand. These are our own people. She was in their care.”

She said Omaha tribal authorities and health workers failed to respond to her family’s efforts to get help finding Lenice. She said she will never forget the day her family found Lenice’s body.

“I can’t get that day out of my mind,” Moniz said. “The hurt in my mom’s eyes, I can’t get that out of my head. It stays there.”

Terese Moniz, older sister to Lenice Blackbird, speaks at a vigil held in Sioux CIty, Iowa, on July 25, 2020, for her sister, whose body was found June 27 in Macy, Nebraska, following a brief bout with coronavirus. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Renee Sans Souci, an Omaha poet and activist, said she has encouraged Lenice’s family to consider taking legal action against the Omaha Tribe.

“We need to show compassion and concern,” she said. “Stop making excuses. Our women are dying. That is unacceptable.”

Michael Patrick O’Connor, a Yankton Lakota activist living in Sioux City, organized Saturday’s vigil. He said it’s important to remember that Lenice was a young woman with dreams and people who loved her.

He said he was disappointed in the failure of Native police and health workers to show compassion for a young relative whose life mattered.

“To me, I couldn’t help but to think what was it like for her?” he said. “What kind of fear was she experiencing?”

Renee Sans Souci, an Omaha poet and activist, speaks at a July 25, 2020, vigil held night in Sioux City, Iowa, for Lenice Blackbird, whose body was found June 27 in Macy, Nebraska, after a brief bout with coronavirus. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

And he said he was frustrated that no tribal representatives have attended or spoke at any of the vigils held in Lenice’s memory.

“‘Lenice walked away.’ That’s what they said, but to me, they walked away from their responsibility,” Patrick O’Connor said. “And the fact that they’re not even here to show enough respect and enough courage just makes it even worse for me.”

“Obviously, somebody needs to take accountability, but who’s brave enough to do that? We’re going to find out.”

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