Young, white and an influencer, 22 year old Gabby Petito was missing for only eight days before federal authorities found her remains in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest. The Petito case quickly garnered national attention as some of her 1.2 million followers began dissecting the facts surrounding her disappearance. Montanans are no stranger to the ‘vanlife’ lifestyle Petito and 23-year-old fiance Brian Laundrie led. Unfortunately, Montanans are also no stranger to reports of young missing women. However, the stories aired in Montana usually concern missing Indigenous women and girls, whose cases are rarely, if ever, as publicized or resolved as urgently as Petito’s. While the homicide of Petito is nothing short of tragic, similar cases are opened every day in Montana concerning MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls) and their families rarely receive the closure the Petitos have. The Petito case should call to attention this horrible issue faced by our Indigenous population and MMIWG cases should be receiving just as much concern as Petito’s has.
Petito and Laundrie began living out of their remodeled van in 2019, shortly after Petito moved in with Laundrie and his parents in North Port, Florida. The two began traveling the country and documenting their adventures on Instagram, TikTok and Youtube at the same time. Despite reports of domestic problems occurring between the two in Moab, Utah on Thursday, Aug. 12, the pair continued their travels North into Grand Teton National Park — the last place Petito’s family reported seeing her while on a video-chat. Almost two weeks later on Wednesday, Sept. 1, Laundrie returned home to Florida alone. Petito’s family reported her missing on Sept. 11, and Laundrie quickly became a person of interest. The influencer’s missing person case quickly went viral on social media until Sept. 19, when the FBI shared news that they found Petito’s remains in Wyoming. Once a preliminary autopsy determined the cause of death to be homicide, an arrest warrant was issued for Laundrie whose whereabouts have been “unknown” since Sept. 17.
Since Gabby was reported missing, the virality of her disappearance undoubtedly fueled the interest of the FBI in her case and the prompt recovery of her body. The hashtag #justiceforgabby has over 5,800 Instagram posts, thousands of tweets, a YouTube channel following updates on the case and a GoFundMe titled “Help us find Gabby” that has raised over $95,000. A public funeral service was held for the travel blogger on Sunday, Sept. 26, in Long Island, where a crowd of 200 gave condolences to the family. The service was also streamed online to thousands, according to the Herald Tribune.
While the Petito family has seen enormous support throughout the country, missing Native American women see little interest and cases often remain ignored and unsolved. In 2019, 5,590 Indigenous women and girls were reported missing to the FBI. Advocates for MMIWG say even these staggering numbers are a misrepresentation of the actual crisis facing the indigenous community. Many victims are misclassified in reports as Asian or Hispanic, not counted if they live in urban areas and cases are frequently lost in jurisdictional entanglements between federal, state and tribal agencies. Few of these thousands of cases gain national attention at the same level Petito’s did and many of these cases remain unsolved. A report released in early 2020 titled “To’ Kee Skuy’ Soo Ney-Wo-Check’ (I Will See You Again in a Good Way)” found that “most” cases involving MMIWG remain unsolved and 60% of solved cases are homicides.
Gabby’s body was found in Wyoming, a state where 710 Indigenous people went missing in the past decade, according to the Wyoming Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force. Grand Teton National Park, where the majority of search efforts for Petito were centered, sits less than two hours from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Wyoming’s MMIWG task force finds that only 30% of Indigenous homicide victims make the news, compared to 51% of whites. In addition, news stories covering the deaths of MMIWG tend to victim-blame. In 2017, the Urban Indian Health Institute published a report that found “media sources have used language that could be perceived as violent and victim-blaming in their coverage of MMIWG cases.” Mentions of whether victims were sex workers or addicts are all too common in coverage of these cases.
“We are doctors, teachers, lawyers, mechanics, nurses, drivers and coaches. We are with you on professional boards of directors, homeowner’s associations and parent-teacher organizations.” wrote Tai Simpson in Cosmopolitan magazine on Thursday, Sept. 30.
The facts surrounding MMIWG cases are horrific and are being pushed to the side of our national discussion too often. As I write this, 30 Native American children are missing in Montana. However, while Instagram posts mourning Gabby Petito pour across your feed, I doubt most of us can recall hearing names like Ira Crawford (age: 16, missing 110 days), Analisia Daisy Longee (age: 14, missing 314 days) or Baja-Knuk Spottedelk (age: 16, missing 345 days). Of all places in the nation, we as Montanans should be hyper-aware of this crisis and advocate relentlessly for law enforcement to give the families of these women and children the same closure Gabby’s family found.
“In our Indigenous communities, many are saddened by the Petito family’s tragedy. I am saddened that a family has to mourn the loss of a daughter, but I’m grateful they have the chance at closure by bringing her body home,” Simpson said. “They will now face the long journey of grief that so many Indigenous families have yet to start.”
The country has every right to mourn the tragic homicide of Gabby Petito. Law enforcement should continue to work day and night, as they have been, searching for suspects in the case. But the country should also read the names of the thousands of MMIWG and mourn the same. Too many Indigenous families have waited years for the closure that the Petitos received in just two weeks.