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Scripps News Literacy Week: Bozeman students look into missing, murdered indigenous women

Five Bozeman High School students take look at nationwide issue with local tragic case
Posted at 2:48 PM, Jan 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-28 16:48:29-05

Scripps News Literacy Week brings together high school journalists from across the nation, working together with reporters to learn about and generate news.

And students in Bozeman joined in on the action, investigating missing and murdered indigenous women, stemming from a tragic case close to home.

MTN’s Cody Boyer was behind the camera as the team of five, including Bozeman High “Hawk Tawk” members Kelly Coyne, Andromeda Tallman, Brooke Bothner, Olivia Bulis and Adele Gammill tackled the topic.

“She touched everyone’s heart, she was...she was just that person,” says Tayzah Stewart.

Selena Not Afraid was just like any other 16 year old Montana girl.

“She’s just the person that brightens up the room,” Stewart says.

To Stewart, she was much more than that.

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“We would go hang out at the rims or go eat somewhere, maybe go bowling,” Stewart says.

While the story of Selena hits close to home for many Montanans, for those who knew her best, it is deeply personal.

We reached out to Tayzah, Selena Not Afraid’s best friend and the one who first started the social media campaign to bring her home.

“She touched everyone’s heart,” Stewart says. “She was just that person that was there for anybody.”

Memories, from playing basketball together to the everyday routine, including attending classes at St. Labre Indian School in Billings.

Until New Year’s Day…

“I’m sure that there will be a lot of broken hearts,” said Big Horn County Sheriff Lawrence Big Hair.

“Never thought something like this would happen, never thought that I would be having to look for Selena,” Stewart says.

Not Afraid went missing outside of an I-90 rest stop near Billings on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020.

Selena’s friends and family took to social media immediately.

“Everyone would just post hope for Sal, hope for Sal, because everyone was so worried and concerned,” Stewart says. “I still have hope. I’m not gonna stop.”

Just minutes after this interview on Jan. 20, Big Horn County Sheriff's officials reported they had discovered a body near the place Not Afraid disappeared.

And a short time later, confirmed the worst…

“This isn’t just a Montana issue, this isn’t just an indigenous issue, this is an American issue,” says Katie Fire Thunder of Bozeman.

To MSU student and MMIW advocate Katie Fire Thunder, Not Afraid’s story is part of something larger.

“A big issue I hear, consistently with these families, is not enough has been done,” Fire Thunder says.

Fire Thunder is a student and a columnist, on a collective called Changing Women, sharing stories of murdered and missing young women.

Fire Thunder says she was especially moved by the story of another missing Native young woman, Henny Scott.

Scott, who went missing in December of 2018, was only 14 years old when she was found dead.

“The fact that it’s still happening at an enormous rate is appalling and unacceptable, and so I think making sure these people in power are local politicians, national politicians know who these girls are,” Fire Thunder says.

“Selena’s story has resonated with many people in Montana and beyond but there are hundreds of cases like Selena’s all around the country.

People who care about this issue are taking to social media to help bring awareness to the problem.

Zachariah Rides at the Door is a sophomore at MSU and a member of the American Indian Executive Council.

“It’s not going unheard of and it’s being spoken of all around Indian country,” Rides at the Door says.

Rides at the Door says the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women is “an epidemic.”

“I have grown up in a family of women, basically, with my mom, my two older sisters,” Rides at the Door says. “Just having that feel like what if they are next? It’s terrifying.”

“It’s been a week now since Selena Not Afraid’s body was found about three quarters of a mile from where she was last reported seen.

Members of the Bozeman community gather to honor her legacy, as well as the legacy of thousands of other indigenous women that go missing every single year.

“I know one thing I’ve been hearing a lot is no more sisters,” Rides at the Door says. “No more stolen sisters.”

Not Afraid’s story has garnered national attention, adding support to Montana Senator John Tester’s campaign to improve resources for the Missing and Murdered Indigneous Women Crisis.

Tester also took to Twitter shortly after investigators found Not Afraid, saying, in part “Sharla and I are heartbroken for Selena’s family and friends.”

“I think just talking about it, sharing the stories is super important, honestly like, the littlest things can make a difference,” Fire Thunder says.

“There is hope,” Rides at the Door says. “We can come together as a community. You won’t ever be forgotten.”

It is a message that, as Tayzah puts it, is as powerful as Not Afraid could have hoped for - A memory she will always hold onto.

“I still go back through our text messages, I re-read them, she’s always telling me to keep my head up and keep pushing myself,” Stewart says. “Thank you for letting her story be heard all around.”

Not Afraid’s family has since announced they will be working with a private investigator to look further into Selena’s case.

Her funeral was held just last weekend.