Missing & Murdered: Indigenous Oklahomans

‘We keep dying’: Indigenous Oklahomans fight state’s missing, murdered crisis

Words by: Karoline Leonard

People come to Oklahoma for many reasons. 

Olivia Gray, however, believes one thing about Oklahoma attracts certain groups of people. 

“Predators seek out Indian country, because they know they are way more likely to get away with beating us, raping us, kidnapping us, trafficking us and killing us because everybody else is just too preoccupied and arguing over jurisdiction instead of all working together,” Gray said. 

Gray, president of Northeastern Oklahoma Indigenous Safety and Education, watches Indigenous people fall victim to an epidemic plaguing Oklahoma and the rest of the country. 

Advocates, like Gray, are attempting to tackle Oklahoma’s underreported top ten crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous, and the hunt to solve cases has grown more complicated and confusing than ever before due to a 2020 landmark Supreme Court ruling. 

Following “McGirt v. Oklahoma,” tribal nations gained sovereignty over the power to investigate, prosecute and sentence cases involving tribal members. The ruling, however, has led to jurisdictional battles over missing and murdered Indigenous people cases in the heart of Indian country.

Indigenous people, more than people of other demographics, are more likely to be murdered and more likely to go missing. For Indigenous Oklahomans, those statistics are more evident. 

Oklahoma has the third largest American Indian and Alaska Native population in the country, only falling behind California and Texas. 

The state, however, has roughly the seventh highest rate of reported and active missing Indigenous people cases in the country, with a rate of about 12.9 missing Indigenous people per 100,000 as of June 30. California and Texas’ rates don’t crack the top 20. 

NamUs, a national database containing reported and active missing persons cases, recorded that Oklahoma had roughly 80 missing Indigenous persons as of June 30 in NamUs, a national database containing reported and active missing persons cases. 

Oklahoma also had 373 Indigenous children go missing between 2012-21, the second highest number reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

Across the country, Indigenous people experience violence or are victims of murder at higher rates than other demographics.

Non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Native women experienced the second highest rate of homicide in 2020, and homicide was a top 10 leading cause of death Indigenous women from age one to age 45. 

This means, an Indigenous woman living on a reservation is more likely to die by homicide than in a car crash. 

Four in five Indigenous women, or well over 1.5 million, experience violence in their lifetimes. One in two Indigenous women experience sexual violence in their lifetime. 

Indigenous men also report high rates of violence with non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Native men having the second highest rate of homicide compared with males in all other racial and ethnic groups. 

Statistics on missing and murdered Indigenous people like these are widely understood to be extremely below the probable real numbers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI. 

Nobody knows the real numbers because the inclusion of tribal affiliations was not offered or required on many databases, like NamUs, until recent years. Denoting a person’s tribal relation is also not always required, so many Indigenous people are identified as other races or ethnic groups. 

Underreporting happens due to miscategorizing of reports by law enforcement, lack of instruction to families and lack of trust between Indigenous people and some law enforcement agencies. Some advocates attribute the underreporting to law enforcement confusion since the McGirt decision in 2020.

To Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., increased rates of violence, number of missing persons reports and high likelihood of homicide are no coincidence. 

“This is a consequence, this is not an accident,” Hoskin said. “This is not because it's inherently likely that a Native woman goes missing more or she just gets raped more or she gets murdered more. 

“It's because of the consequence of federal Indian policy. If we lose sight of that — if we simply blame the fact that there is this complex system of justice in this country or that we just need to apply some more resources — I think we will get short shrift to what has been centuries of neglect and oppression and dispossession.”

Tired of seeing cases ignored and unsolved, advocates started combatting the MMIP crisis themselves, bringing attention to lawmakers and tribal governments in order to fix jurisdictional conflict, garner additional resources and protect Indigenous people in Oklahoma.

Emily Morgan, Teedeenae Jackson Yearby, Molly Miller, Sharon Walters and Addison Reese are all victims of the MMIP epidemic in the state. Their families, advocates, tribal governments and investigators are pushing for change and searching for justice.

Despite their efforts, advocates like Gray, watch as the epidemic continues in Oklahoma.

“These parents are mourning their children. Children are mourning their parents. The people that are mourning want some justice” Gray said. “There's no accountability. Yet, we keep dying.”

'Just raise hell’: Families of missing, murdered Indigenous women share their stories

Words by: Karoline Leonard

Emily Morgan always wanted to be the best at everything.  

She received accolades in school and always looked put together. She played softball, was a Choctaw Nation princess and was a daughter and mother. 

Kim Merryman remembers her daughter as fierce, responsible and determined. She was a capricorn, through and through, Merryman said. She was born on New Year’s in 1993 at the old Choctaw Nation Indian Hospital in Talihina. 

Morgan was killed alongside her friend inside her car in McAlester on Aug. 26, 2016. Her case is still open, and her mother is looking for answers.

At 15, Morgan became pregnant with her son Payden. As of this year, he will now officially have more birthdays without his mother than with her.

After Morgan was killed, Merryman started raising Payden, but she said she can’t match his mother.

“I have a little boy that had a momma that looked at him like that all the time, and he looked at her like she was the queen of the world,” Merryman said, pointing to a photo of Morgan and Payden. “He doesn't have anybody like that. I’m his grandma and I look at him like that, but it's different. I'm an old woman. I can't dress up to be the queen of the room and him be proud of me.” 

Morgan loved her son and wanted to do everything for him, Merryman said. She gave him the best clothes, the best toys and wanted him to be the best athlete. 

Merryman said her daughter turned down a dark path in order to support herself and her son. The choices she made don’t absolve her killer.

Morgan, who was 23, and her friend Totinika Elix, 24, were found dead in Morgan’s car in 2016. 

At first, Merryman said, investigators told her a suspect would be charged within a few months. She started making plans to attend hearings. 

Suddenly, Merryman stopped receiving updates. The case has passed on to new detectives but nobody has been arrested.

“To law enforcement, their deaths didn't matter,” Merryman said. “These young single mothers, their lives didn’t matter. But if it was people of a different social class, it would’ve.”

Morgan was a member of the Choctaw Nation. She was killed four years before the McGirt ruling, so it has never been moved to the tribal or federal jurisdictions. Merryman is currently advocating to change the case’s jurisdiction. 

Before her death, Morgan was running errands for somebody, with Merryman alluding that she was running drugs for a man in McAlester. She said she believes this person is responsible for her daughter’s death, but police have not made headway. 

Merryman said she won’t stop until she has justice for her daughter. 

Since her daughter’s death, Merryman said one of the biggest parts of her life has been her grandson, whom she said reminds her of Morgan. She said no matter what, Morgan loved Payden and that’s how she should be remembered. 

“Every one of those choices were because she was a young mother. She wanted to make sure that her son had things,” Merryman said. “She didn't know how else she was going to provide for him. … She was a wonderful mom. She loved him with all her heart and soul.”

“Every one of those choices were because she was a young mother. She wanted to make sure that her son had things,” Merryman said. “She didn't know how else she was going to provide for him. … She was a wonderful mom. She loved him with all her heart and soul.”

Near the abandoned Choctaw Nation Indian Hospital is a pavilion. Merryman goes there to remember her daughter. 

“We had Easter up here one time, Emily and I,” Merryman said. “We can see the window where she was born from here. There are just lots of memories coming here.”

Merryman wakes up thinking about Morgan every day.

On New Year’s Day, Morgan’s birthday, Merryman cooks her daughter’s favorite meal: meatloaf, fried potatoes, red beans and any type of cake. Morgan’s friends will come celebrate and tell Payden about his mother. 

Merryman said not a day goes by that she doesn’t think of Morgan. Since her death seven years ago, she looks for ways to honor her, like getting a tattoo of a butterfly and semicolon. 

“Most of all, to honor Emily, is by living,” Merryman said. “I got this tattoo in the second year that she was killed. Every time I would tell her story, butterflies would be flying all around. The semicolon is because I chose to live after I lost her. I try to live my life to the fullest that I can.”

Using Format