Story by Jazzlyn Johnson, photos by Dan Ennis
Rae Peppers was 8 years old during that drive to New Mexico. Her father was driving, it was just the two of them. He had picked her up from school, taking her out of her third grade classroom at Wyola School on the Crow Indian Reservation.
She remembers her classmates, her friends, looking out at her from inside the school. They were pounding on the windows.
“The main part that was traumatizing was being taken from the school,” Peppers said.
Peppers’ younger sister, who was in the first grade at the time, remembers being called into the office from recess. There, she had seen her father holding Peppers’ hand. She remembered her mother telling her and her siblings not to go with their father. He had tried to take them away before.
Once she saw her father, Peppers’ sister, who recalled the events but asked not to be identified, ran in the opposite direction. She saw her older brother hiding as she was running out of the school. He took her hand and they ran out the school’s back exit.
Peppers remembers feeling scared about leaving her family. She didn’t get to say goodbye to her sisters, her brothers, not even her mother.
“I was upset with him then because I was frightened,” Peppers said about her father. “And then he tried talking to me. He calmed me down.”
Peppers lived in New Mexico with her father’s family for about eight years. By the time she was 16 years old, she grew tired of the setting in New Mexico and hitchhiked toward Montana. She knew she had family in Montana. She knew she missed them.
One of the last nights she spent hitchhiking, she stayed the night at a motel in Cheyenne, Wyoming during a blizzard. Local police noticed her the next day and picked her up. She told them her mother’s name and that she lived in Wyola, Montana.
Peppers’ mother rushed down to Cheyenne and picked her up. Her sister was there as well. She hugged Peppers. Her sister said it was hard knowing her sibling was gone. They missed her.
At the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Peppers, now 60, can be seen scurrying through swarms of other legislators and speakers. She is easy to spot because she almost always wears her wide-brimmed straw hat with a red ribbon tied around it. Although Peppers speaks softly and cheerfully to those around her, she has had to put up a fight this session.
Similar stories can be seen across the nation. Indian Country Today, a nonprofit news outlet owned by the Washington D.C.-based National Congress of American Indians, conducted exhaustive research into the 2018 election cycle and found that 100 Native Americans ran for office throughout the country. More than half, 52 candidates, were women. The results were historic: Two states elected Native American women to Congress.
A number of other states elected Native Americans to office, including Montana, which elected 11 tribal candidates to the state legislature. Of those, five are women. All of this comes two years after Denise Juneau launched her own headline-grabbing campaign in a failed bid to win a congressional seat.
Peppers is the House Representative for the 41st district, which includes Rosebud and Big Horn counties and both the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. She sponsored three significant bills this session, each targeting the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis to prevent what happened to her as a child from happening to others.
Peppers said that the crisis has always been around. “But the more incidents that started happening, the more I realized I’m part of this group,” she said.
Having lived on the Crow reservation and now on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, Peppers saw many other Native American women who were survivors and victims.
Today, there are still 24 active missing or murdered cases of Native Americans on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, according to the Sovereign Bodies Institute. Although Montana has some of the highest rates of missing Native American women, pieces of legislation addressing the crisis have struggled passing through the legislature.
Peppers’ bills include Hanna’s Act (House Bill 21), and both house bills 54 and 20, all created by the State-Tribal Relations Committee, which creates legislation and conducts studies which would promote cooperation between state and tribal governments.
Peppers has received much attention from sponsoring the bills, especially for Hanna’s Act, which leaves her feeling overwhelmed. She has never felt completely comfortable in the limelight.
She also feared the bills would bring back difficult memories from her kidnapping, so she did not feel ready to carry it at first. “When I run my bills, I run them hard,” she said. “We need to make a stand because our missing and murdered indigenous women, even in today’s society, we’re looked at as not important.”
Peppers named Hanna’s Act after Hanna Harris who was killed near Lame Deer in 2013. Peppers said she saw how dedicated Hanna’s family was to helping other families, even after Hanna’s case was solved.
Hanna’s Act, which passed April 21, will create a missing persons specialist employed by the Department of Justice to help investigate all missing persons cases, no matter the age of the missing person. The specialist provides support and resources for the family of a missing person, updates and oversees the database, provides awareness and public outreach, and conducts trainings for law enforcement.
Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy said at the first hearing for Hanna’s Act, the act is essential and that without it, the other bills will not work. “This is the foundational piece to begin to move forward,” she said.
The specialist in Hanna’s Act would oversee the rest of the package and make sure everything would operate as planned.
It was early July when Malinda Harris Limberhand, Hanna’s mother, noticed Hanna was gone and tried reporting her daughter missing. She knew something was wrong. Hanna would never leave her infant son, who was still breastfeeding, for too long.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs police on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation told Limberhand that her daughter was probably out partying and would come home soon. They said if she wanted to, she could search for Hanna herself.
Jennifer Viets is the program manager of the Criminal Justice Information Network, a state Department of Justice program that provides information and support to the FBI to aid in investigations. Viets says heir most common call from families missing a loved one is that they cannot find any law enforcement agency that will take their report. Often, missing person cases are held up because of jurisdiction issues in which neither the family members nor the law enforcement agency know where reports should be filed.
Some law enforcement agencies turn away family members because they do not think they have the jurisdiction. In Hanna’s case, the report wasn’t taken seriously early enough.
Viets said the state absolutely needs the specialist that Hanna’s Act would create, because the Criminal Justice Information Network lacks the time for public outreach to push out important messages and resources.
With no other options, Limberhand, her family and the Northern Cheyenne community searched for Hanna.
“A mother will do whatever she has to do to find the truth,” she said. She said she conducted most of the investigation herself. She gathered security tapes from Jimtown Bar, the last place Hanna was seen, found Hanna’s car, and put out announcements of her disappearance around town.
When Limberhand and her other daughter, Rose Harris, came across Hanna’s car, they noticed reddish dirt. In their search parties, they tried looking for places with red dirt to find out where she might have been.
“On crime shows we saw this so that’s why we did it,” Rose said. “If we wouldn’t have done anything, it would have been an unsolved case.”
Limberhand even brought one of her daughter’s killers, Eugenia Ann Rowland, to law enforcement to be questioned.
“At that time, I didn’t want to believe that she was capable of doing something like that,” Limberhand said. “I just wanted to know where my daughter was at.”
Sheriff Allen Fulton of Rosebud County asked the BIA police if they needed help looking or investigating when he heard there was a disappearance on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Rosebud County. He felt obligated to help.
The BIA police declined his help, Fulton said.
“It may have been that they had plenty of people for what they were going to do,” Fulton said. Because jurisdiction prevents outside law enforcement to get involved with a reservation’s law enforcement unless asked to, Fulton could not help.
In addition to jurisdictional issues, the BIA does not always share information with Fulton. He said Hanna’s Act could help with that.
“We need to get a little more understanding and have some guidelines for when [a person] is going to need to be reported and entered,” said Fulton. “It also helps build relationships with the Northern Cheyenne.”
He said cooperation is getting better between the Northern Cheyenne police and the Rosebud County Sheriff’s Office because they are willing to break down those barriers and share information.
The BIA, which has jurisdiction on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, said the county commissioner and county deputies did assist in the initial search for Hanna, although Fulton disputes this.
Hanna’s body was found badly decomposed on the rodeo grounds near Lame Deer. Rowland and Sidney Henderson Wadda were convicted in 2014 for murdering Hanna. They had beaten her to death just outside Lame Deer and moved her body back to the rodeo grounds. The couple both pleaded guilty and were sent to prison.
Usually Rose Harris is the strong one, but in early March at the first hearing for Hanna’s Act in the Senate Judiciary Committee, she locked up before she testified.
It was the first time Harris could not talk about her sister Hanna.
On the way to Helena, she smelled an animal carcass. “That’s what brought back the whole smelling Hanna,” Harris said. She had to walk out of the hearing.
Harris was planning on telling the committee about what it was like searching for her sister and the feeling of not being able to see her when she was found. Since Hanna’s body was so decomposed, she could only feel her sister through the bag she was put in.
“I’m glad she’s crying,” said Clara Harris, Rose and Hanna’s grandmother. “There’s no time limit to grief. It’s always going to be there.”
Hanna is buried behind Clara’s house. There is a white wooden gate with the Northern Cheyenne Morning Star surrounding her and her grandfather’s graves. They are buried on a hill, just above their yard where Hanna and Rose would have lawnmower races as children. It’s also not far from the tall rocks on the hill surrounded by trees that Hanna and Rose would climb up to as kids and called their praying rocks.
“[Hanna] and my husband were really close and now they’re both up there,” Clara said. “I can look up and see where they’re buried. They’re not far from me.”
Rose Harris and Limberhand say they are carrying many families behind them who are asking for help and justice when they testify and speak out for bills like Hanna’s Act.
“It takes a lot to build up the strength to talk to people and get people to understand your point of view,” Harris said. “I’m scared that they won’t take it serious and I hate that feeling. At least give us a chance.”
Both Peppers and Stewart-Peregoy agree this session has been a rollercoaster. It has not been an easy journey for Hanna’s Act through the legislature. The bill was tied, tabled, voted down and held hostage in a whirlwind that Peppers felt deeply.
This session reminded them of the deeply rooted institutional racism and lack of education in the legislature regarding the Native American population in Montana.
Senator Jennifer Fielder voted Hanna’s Act down because she wanted to see tribal governments fund the proposed $100,000 salary for the specialist position, travel funds and marketing material to enact the law.
“I believe tribal governments have extensive resources and I’d like to see some participation from those tribal governments in financing a position like this, rather than ask the state to do it,” Fielder said at one Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Maylinn Smith, adjunct law professor at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III Law School and director of the University of Montana Indian Law Clinic, disagreed. She said tribes do not have enough resources to come up with the $100,000 Hanna’s Act proposed.
Many times when Native American legislators propose a bill asking for money, almost always, they have to negotiate the amount down, Stewart-Peregoy said. Many legislators think Montana’s Native American population do not pay taxes.
Most of Montana’s Native Americans live off-reservation and do pay taxes. Tribal governments do receive money from the federal government, but it’s because they are not allowed to tax within their boundaries, Stewart-Peregoy said.
“They think we’re dependent and that the government gives us handouts.”
Regardless, Smith said the state has an obligation to address the needs of Montana citizens, which includes citizens of the tribes.
In addition, Smith said the responsibility of the funding and implementation of bills like Hanna’s Act fall on every level: tribal, state and federal governments, not just the tribes. If Montana wants to count Native American citizens for federal dollars, they also need to recognize their obligation to meet the needs of those communities, Smith said.
It seems trivial watching legislators who are not well-educated on tribal government and jurisdiction on and off the reservation speak and critique bills regarding those issues. Many Montana legislators are not familiar with tribal government and the jurisdictional issues that arise in missing person cases.
After witnessing legislators struggle with understanding jurisdictional issues and seeing Hanna’s Act struggle making its way through the legislature, Peppers feels there was another misunderstanding that Hanna’s Act would help only Native Americans.
“We made it all of Montana because we are elected by the people of Montana,” Peppers said. She thinks that confusion is why her bill has had such a hard time.
“As a legislator it’s tough. Like MMIW, they tend not to take our issues seriously,” Peppers said.
“We know the protocol of how non-Natives react to our bills and knew it was important to make it a Montana issue in order to get their attention.”
Peppers does believe deep-rooted institutional racism is some of the cause for the attitudes many legislators have toward Native American sponsored bills.
Peppers is one of 11 legislators in the Montana American Indian Caucus. “The bills we bring forth don’t tend to have the credibility that other bills do,” she said of Native American-sponsored bills. “We have every right to carry our bills.”
Smith said political leaders in Montana are either devaluing Native American lives or they are not willing to take the time to learn about jurisdiction and cooperative efforts.
“Whether it’s implicit bias or whether it’s racism, it is a lack of being informed,” Smith said. “But if you have 6 percent of your population who you’re not representing, I think that’s problematic.”
Stewart-Peregoy said it’s actually colonialism. “It’s colonialistic minds. It’s beyond prejudice, it’s privilege,” she said. “For those that are able to realize it and many did, they helped us. But for others, they used it as a political football.”
Through media coverage and the help of allies, Peppers and Stewart-Peregoy believe Hanna’s Act took on a life of its own.
“I remind Rae that she’s the carrier of it, but we’re all there to help you and stand beside you,” Stewart-Peregoy said.
Peppers is now at peace and glad she did not let the people down. Hanna’s Act finally passed.
After a long session, Peppers is ready to go back home to her ranch in Lame Deer and be with her animals, land and family.