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Vigil remembers Native American victims of violence, calls for change
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Vigil remembers Native American victims of violence, calls for change

From the Complete coverage: The case of Kaysera Stops Pretty Places series
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The few dozen people gathered in the fading light Monday didn't just pray and hope for closure that missing loved ones would be found or that those killed would receive justice. 

They called for changes to break the cycle that leaves Native Americans facing higher rates of violence. 

"It shouldn't happen. We've already dealt with so much tragedy," said Northern Cheyenne Tribal President Rynalea Whiteman Pena. 

In Montana, Native Americans are just 6.7% of the total population, but make up 26% of missing persons cases. Native Americans are nearly four times more likely to be victims of homicide than the state's general population.

Monday's candlelight vigil on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn was one of several events that have drawn attention to those statistics, and to personal stories. 

Wesley Stops Jr., who led prayers at the event, talked about organizing searches "basically on our own."

He cited a search for Hub Williamson, 34, who was last seen April 9 near Hardin. 

Volunteer teams have searched areas near Dunmore, Crow Agency and Hardin. They acknowledged that a Labor Day search of the Little Bighorn River was more of a body search than anything else.

Stops Jr. said that there hadn't been any cooperation on the searches from the Bureau of Indian Affairs or Big Horn County officials. 

Resolution is important, he said, for "the families that are still searching for answers... still praying and believing that there will be closure, somehow, someday." 

Whiteman Pena said that groups like the recently-announced Department of Justice task force on the issue should have happened earlier, and should do more. 

She was also critical of how recent cases have been handled, including Henny Scott's.

Events calling for change and recognizing victims have grown increasingly common in Billings since the death of 14-year-old Scott. Federal officials determined Scott died of hypothermia on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and declined to press charges — though many tribal members still suspect foul play. 

"We don't need (a coroner) coming in and saying that the cause of death was exposure, when we know that something happened before that," she said. 

She and other speakers also cited the case of Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, an 18-year-old whose body was found in Hardin five days after she was reported missing. A rally was held at the county courthouse in Hardin in September calling for justice in her case. 

It also wasn't lost on speakers that the event fell on a date that's become increasingly recognized as Indigenous Peoples Day. Several states have shifted from honoring explorer Christopher Columbus, who participated in atrocities alongside seafaring accomplishments. Montana legislators voted in April to hold tight to Columbus Day.

There were also calls for unity.

Jared Stewart, a member of the Crow Tribe, talked about coping with his brother's killing as a child. He took issue with the sentence handed down, which he felt was lighter than it would have been had the slaying been in a non-reservation community like Billings. 

"There's not that many of us on the face of the planet," he said. "We need to take care of each other."

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PHOTOS: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Vigil

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