After Selena Not Afraid's funeral service in the Hardin High gym ended, her aunt Cheryl Horn stood along the path in Fairview Cemetery directing people to the site of her 16-year-old niece's grave.
Selena was a student at Hardin High School. She loved horses, and had hoped to be an Indian relay rider. Her favorite horse had been named Wart. Horseback riders made up of men, women, boys and girls accompanied the horse-drawn wagon that brought her casket from the school up Vanzandt Road, a distance of almost 2 miles.
They hitched their animals to the metal cemetery fence posts and joined hundreds of others who stood among the gravestones for Selena's burial.
The weather was beautiful for a day in late January, the sun shining and the air warm amid the leafless trees.
Selena went missing New Year's Day and 20 days later her body was found, about a mile from where she had been last seen at a rest stop between Billings and Hardin. An autopsy last week determined that she died of hypothermia and an investigation into her death is ongoing.
Horn, her aunt, had been among the volunteers that continued to search for Selena and raise awareness about her disappearance.
Before the burial service, Horn described her feelings Sunday amid the tragedy that has befallen her family.
"I just want to thank everybody for helping us pray to bring Selena home. Like I said, today we're celebrating her life, we're not sad, we're rejoicing because we got her back. All that joy and happiness and relief was more than the pain. It still is. The pain will come up, it'll get up. But right now we're so relieved, blessed, thankful. And we think it's a miracle to get her back," Horn said.
"Lots of people don't get theirs back."
Selena's story has unified large groups of people and raised awareness for cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and missing and murdered indigenous people. Her funeral Sunday was attended by well over 1,000 people, many wearing red, the symbolic color of the various movements which seek justice and improved outcomes for grieving Native American families for whom answers and resolutions have long been unattainable.
Inside the Hardin gym for Selena's funeral posters hung on the walls showing Selena's face. Other posters with red lettering said "Hope 4 Sal" and "MMIW." Selena's casket was draped in blankets and surrounded by enough flowers to cover four tables and the floor below them.
During the service there was audible crying at times and choked up voices. The funeral also brought smiles to the faces of some and moments of laughter.
Her grandfather Channis Whiteman started his eulogy bemoaning the difficulties of being short as he stood at the podium, drawing laughter. Whiteman continued in a humorous tone, describing his family connections to those in attendance. Then he started talking about Selena.
"Selena was only 16 years old. Life had just started," he said. There was a long pause and the gym was quiet. "Full of life," he continued, his voice breaking.
"It was the best years of her life. And she was enjoying it to the fullest," he said. "My little jokester."
Whiteman talked about his own struggles with tragedy as a youth and the anger it had created inside him. He encouraged the students in the gym to seek help from counselors in dealing with their emotions. He said it was okay to cry.
"The hurt is always there. We try to hide it, but somehow we have to let it out. Go out in the hills somewhere by yourself and cry until you can't cry anymore so everything will be better for you," he said. "Because crying really can help."
Toward the end of his eulogy, Whiteman pointed out how far Selena's story had spread, and just how important it was.
"Now we've got to stand up and find these people that are missing. And find them alive," he said, and the gym broke out into applause.
A slideshow played at one point during the service, showing Selena throughout her life. There were photos of her with family and friends, playing volleyball, riding horses, standing beside horses, swimming and graduating. In another photo she was wearing her traditional tribal regalia. Her obituary noted that recently she had returned to jingle dress dancing at powwows, something she had previously done with her twin sister Zoe.
Afterwards the Northern Cheyenne President Rynalea Whiteman Pena addressed the gym, quickly pointing towards how sad it was to be at the school under such circumstances.
"We shouldn't be sitting here in the Hardin Bulldog gym, celebrating or paying our respects for something very tragic, " she said. "When you come into this gym it usually is a place for rivals, for excitement, for accomplishments, for things that have gone on with students and staff."
Crow Tribe CEO Karl Little Owl spoke on behalf of the Tribe and Tribal Chairman A.J. Not Afraid. Not Afraid, a relative of Selena's, sat in the front row.
"One thing I remember about her is her smile," Little Owl said. "Her smile was radiant from miles away. I think as you remember her and remember her life, remember that smile and the lives she has touched."
In a duet that left some people wiping away tears, twin sisters Kylee and Breanna Old Elk sang a song that included the lyrics "When I think I'm sad and lonely, and I begin to worry, I know you're out there thinking of me somewhere, somewhere."
There were many hugs throughout the service, including for Selena's mother Jackie Big Hair, who sat surrounded by family.
John Joyce, a middle school teacher of Selena's read her obituary and then talked about her resiliency and her laughter.
He asked people to think about what blessings they got from Selena. "For me it will always be her laughter," he said. "Her laughter was a way of healing. In about 10 seconds she and her compadres could take a class and just pretty soon we were reduced to just laughing so hard we were in tears. It wasn't really good for actually getting the classwork done, but it was really, really good for the soul."
At the cemetery for Selena's burial, Pastor Daniel Knows His Gun urged people to come together.
'Celebrate her life by holding each other," he said."Don't forget this unity.
Others called for Selena's friends and classmates to honor her memory by pursuing their goals.
During the funeral service at the high school there was a moment where Selena's own words were read aloud by 10 of her peers. Alongside programs being handed out at the funeral were printed copies of a list of 10 things about herself that Selena had written. Each classmate of Selena's read one item from the list. The list was undated, but referenced events as recently as 2018.
The list is as follows:
"1. I love horses, I love everything about them, their eyes, the way they breathe, the way they move. I mostly enjoy riding, feeling free in the wind as I feel four feet beneath me. I love race horses, me and my grandmother are raising race horses. If we aren't home we are most likely at the barns with our horses. My grandma always told me growing up 'When your life is falling apart, or you're at your lowest, just ride.'
2. I'm the youngest of five siblings, I love my family deeply. Can't wait till we all reunite!
3. I have a twin sister and older sister who passed away in 2014 and 2018. Life's never been the same but I still have hope. My twin died of suicide. My sister died of a hit-n-run. I'm still trying to process this.
4. I love to bead, and sew because my whole family does it. I feel like it's part of me. I love drowning in my creativity.
5. I also really like to bake with my mom, I'm slowly learning more and more from her.
6. We lost my older brother two years ago on Nov 18, 2017 in front of my house, he was shot 17 times by Billings PD. He was only 23 years old. I miss him dearly. Just glad he had two children.
7. I love to travel to different horse races w/grandma.
8. I do enjoy reading really anything.
9. I have one sibling left, I plan on going to college close to where he lives.
10. I really hope one day I will build my own barn and have race horses, cows, a shed."
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