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HomeIndigenous NewsSearch for Native woman’s identity reignites

Search for Native woman’s identity reignites

Amelia Schafer
ICT + Rapid City Journal

RAPID CITY, S.D. – Dave Thompson, Oglala Lakota, was 11 when he heard a woman’s body was found under a cement bridge two miles outside of his hometown, Gordon, Nebraska. In 2022, Thompson first heard about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and remembered that woman lying in an unmarked grave in the Gordon Cemetery.

Nearly 54 years later, Thompson’s memory of that unnamed woman has brought advocates one step closer to giving her her name back.

“It’s always been on my mind,” Thompson said. “We go to the Gordon cemetery, we drive by her all the time. She had an unmarked grave, it was just a rock. … I started calling around the tribe but I didn’t hear from anyone until I called Amanda Takes War Bonnett.”

Takes War Bonnett, public education specialist for the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, was able to alert the Bureau of Indian Affairs and shed light on the case that had stuck with Thompson for more than five decades.

“Without him, we’d probably have never known about her,” Takes War Bonnett said.

In January, the woman’s body was exhumed from her unnamed grave in the Gordon Cemetery by the BIA and then sent off for DNA testing.

DNA testing revealed the woman had both Mexican and Native American ancestry, particularly from the Oglala, S.D., area, Takes War Bonnett said. While her identity and family is still unknown, the search was narrowed significantly.

Mexican “colonies” were established across Nebraska in places like Gordon throughout the early to mid-20th Century. Workers set up camps in rural towns and often socialized with the residents of nearby reservations. Takes War Bonnett speculates the woman may have been a descendant of someone from these camps who had a baby with a Lakota. Takes War Bonnett said her own relatives are descended from these types of relationships, specifically individuals from the Gordon camp.

Often, federal immigration authorities would raid the camps and send workers back to Mexico, which might explain why no relatives have claimed the woman or reported her missing at the time, Takes War Bonnett said.

Racism in reservation border towns can run deep. In 1972 Raymond Yellow Thunder, an Oglala Lakota man, was abducted and beaten to death by a group of white men in Gordon. Yellow Thunder’s murder caused the American Indian Movement to descend upon Gordon and call for change.

While the woman was found three years before AIM came to Pine Ridge and two years before they came to Gordon, there was still a significant spike in MMIW cases in the 1970s.

The town of Gordon, Nebraska, lies around 20 miles south of the South Dakota state line. (Photo by Darsha Dodge, Rapid City Journal)

The town of Gordon, Nebraska, lies around 20 miles south of the South Dakota state line. (Photo by Darsha Dodge, Rapid City Journal)

“We have to remember that it was a really crazy time period,” Takes War Bonnett said. “They were having so much trouble in border towns. There were people going missing at that time that people just really didn’t pay attention to. I don’t know if maybe she wasn’t reported or maybe they thought she just left somewhere. People were going everywhere at that time, going places with AIM or wherever.”

Dozens of Indigenous women disappeared or were murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s, which is about 20 miles from Gordon. There’s no official number of how many women disappeared or were killed during this time.

“It got me thinking, how many other places are there missing people and we don’t know who they are?” Thompson said. “They could be some of these missing Indigenous women, children and men. Maybe somebody could go check the cemeteries and see if you’ve got somebody in there with no name, nothing. There’s a lot of missing people out there.”

Currently, the woman is being held at Sioux Funeral Home in Pine Ridge, Takes War Bonnett said.

“She had no dignity in burial,” said Susan Shangreaux, Oglala Sioux Tribe Victim Services’ director.

In Gordon, the woman was buried in a body bag in an unmarked grave with just a stone above her. Shangreaux is preparing to request a star quilt, coffin and traditional burial from the tribe for the woman. Even if she’s not actually from Pine Ridge, Victim Services still wants dignity for her.

“We don’t know who this woman is, but I’m still finding victims that are missing or were murdered way back in the past,” Shangreaux said. “Some families call and then others I find through research. I look and look and look and find people.”

Shangreaux and Victims Services have spent countless hours documenting MMIW cases across the reservation. All of the walls of the main street building in Pine Ridge are covered in handmade posters with photos and information about each case.

Often families will reach out to Shangreaux about their missing or murdered relative, or she’ll find them on her own through independent research. So far there hasn’t been anyone reported missing in the time period that the Gordon Jane Doe was found that matches her description.

The woman would have been between 40 and 50 years old, with several gray strands in her black hair. She was about five feet tall and 120 pounds with several missing teeth.

The woman’s cause of death has not been identified, Takes War Bonnett said.

Anyone with information about the woman should call BIA Special Agent Savannah Peterson at 505-221-0974.

The BIA did not respond to requests for comment on this story. 

This story is co-published by the Rapid City Journal and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the South Dakota area.

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