Dead Arapaho women's sister slams color bias in media coverage of missing persons
Tianna D Wagon, 24, is a Cultural Resource Specialist for Fremont County School District #25. She is the third oldest among her sisters, all of them raised by their mother Nicole Watt-Wagon, a Northern Arapaho woman and activist who lives on Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation. The sisters could always count on each other, no matter how hard life became. However, in 2019, Jocelyn, her eldest sister and her partner, Rudy Perez were found murdered at their Riverton residence.
"Jocelyn was very protective of all of us. As I became older, she was always my go-to when I needed reassurance in my life choices. Even though at times our conversations led to some harsh words, they always ended with a good laugh and a loving hug," Tianna recalled in an interview with MEAWW. The past few weeks, people across the globe have been captivated by the story of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old White woman who went missing while on a cross-country road trip with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. However, Tianna is making sure her family's tragedy doesn't remain just another unheard statistic or a report.
Both the 30-year-olds (Jocelyn and Rudy) had died from gunshot wounds. All these months later, no arrests have been made in the shooting. This murder prompted Jade, another one of her sisters to become involved in raising awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous people. But a year after Jocelyn was murdered, Jade, 23, was also found dead. She was reported missing on Jan 2, 2020, and her body was found in a field near Ethete in March 2020. In a joint FBI-Fremont County Coroner’s Office news release, authorities said that Jade died from hypothermia “due to environmental exposure and acute methamphetamine intoxication.” The Coroner’s Office ruled the manner of death as accidental. However, Jade's family believes there are unanswered questions surrounding her death.
"Jade was a free spirit," Tianna says. "There was no telling that girl what she could/couldn’t do. We were very close in age, approximately 16 months apart. Growing up, our mom always dressed us alike and people often mistook us for being twins. Jade was a constant reminder for me to not take life so seriously, to take things as they come and make the best out of any situation that you find yourself in. Oh, she was so goofy! Her laugh was one of a kind. In the largest crowd, I swear I could easily point hers out because it was just that special."
"In the 20-something years that I was blessed to have with both of my sisters, there are so many memories that we shared. Both their deaths affected our family tremendously, as did Rudy's. Rudy and Jocelyn were not married but they loved each other so much. Rudy was the brother I never had. They were taken away at a time when they had a long life ahead, to live and enjoy," Tianna says.
'Our world is so divided by our skin color'
Gabby Petito's story was ferociously covered by local and national media. Clues were relentlessly chased down by authorities -- police departments, the FBI, the search and rescue teams. Internet sleuths formed groups on social media and spent days at a stretch trying to trace first Petito's and then Laundrie's digital trail. Laundrie's whereabouts are currently unknown and a massive manhunt to find him is underway. He is the only person of interest in Petito's death.
In the light of all the attention around Petito's death and missing reports, there were a large number of people who felt Petito did not deserve the tag of 'America's daughter' as they asked about the millions of women and men who go missing and no one ever notices, especially when it happens to be people of color or other races. Tianna cautiously adds that she does not want to be labeled as another person “pulling a race card”.
"I do not believe in comparing anyone to anybody," Tianna explains. "But I feel that my sisters should be here. Many people said “Gabby was loved”. My sisters were loved too. Others said Gabby’s parents reached out to all news outlets. Well, we did too. I constantly posted on social media platforms to pray for justice for Jocelyn, to help search for my sister Jade when she first went missing. But not as many shared or even probably considered it that important. It wasn’t until after Jade was found that news outlets reached out. It’s normal for our people to die from drug/alcohol-related problems, live off of 'government handouts' -- that's what people have said for decades about Indigenous people across the states."
"Both Jocelyn and Jade deserve justice. It wasn’t fair then and it’s most definitely not fair now. When they were alive they mattered, and even more so now that they are gone. As long as I am alive I will not allow for my sisters to be just another number, more statistics because of where they come from and who they are as Arapaho women. Some of the facts about my sister Jade’s case and Gabby’s go hand-in-hand and yet they are different. Why? It’s because our world is so divided by what skin color we are. When is that going to change? We need to do better as human beings to care about one another’s lives equally," Tianna adds.
As per a report from Wyoming, the homicide rate for Indigenous people from 2010 to 2019 was 26.8%, which is eight times higher than the homicide rate for White people. The report found that only 30% of Indigenous homicide victims made the news, compared to 51% of White victims. Such findings are not restricted to one place only. In Montana, Indigenous people makeup for 7% of the population but account for 26% of missing persons. Similarly, in Minnesota, Indigenous people represent just 1% of the population of the state, but 9% of all women and girls murdered are Indigenous. The issue has, unfortunately, gone mostly underreported.
'It doesn’t matter what color you are'
"I think what minorities have said for so long is pretty justified. Social media coverage is not fair, and neither is the justice system -- the two go hand-in-hand. The Missing White Woman Syndrome, unfortunately, is a thing in the world we live in. All I can do is my part and that is to fight for justice for my sisters. I hope any family that is searching for their loved ones, brings them home one day. It doesn’t matter what color you are, or if you are male or female -- you deserve to be home with your loved ones. I hope all are found one day. All the cases that are unsolved -- I pray that you find peace and are served justice by the system. It’s only right for me to want that for others as much as I want that for myself and my family," Tianna says.
"I strongly believe that both Jocelyn and Jade’s cases deserved more media attention. They were residents of the state and didn’t receive nearly half the attention that Gabby received. I am not saying that Gabby’s life is not important. Every life counts and matters. We are all here for a reason. I just feel that the media does not cover stories that pertain to people of color fairly. In this region you hardly ever see indigenous stories being recognized, whether they’re good or bad. The only time you see tribal updates in the news is when there are disagreements in politics or issues with money. I feel if news outlets highlighted my sisters' stories, they would be served justice or at least get closer to doing so. A few short months after their deaths, the stories stopped. It was as if they never mattered. Again, it seemed as if so many thought “oh, just another native person gone”."
Tianna adds, "The media could have done a better job by continuing to highlight their stories. Even to this day I would want them to keep updating the public of their cases, of what they are allowed to share. The only time I have ever seen my sisters on the news was when we first found out what had happened to them."
Memories in abundance
"I miss Jocelyn and Jade more than I can express in words right now," says Tianna. "When I think about the short period of time that we got to share with each other, I remember how Jocelyn once took the initiative to plan a surprise party for our (maternal) grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. She reached out to family members and delegated assignments to each. Such rush, so much frustration because we thought we wouldn't be able to arrange everything perfectly -- when I look back now, I wish those times had lasted. Despite the difficulties and anxiety, we pulled it off! So many relatives were in attendance, the room was filled with love and laughter. I remember helping watch our niece MaeLeah (Jade’s first child) while she ate some of Jocelyn’s delicious food. It was a family affair. That day reminds me of why I love my family so much, especially my sisters."
Tianna says that she is now doing her best to move forward and be the best big sister to her younger siblings.
"After my sister Jade died, I really had to step up and be more responsible and do my part in looking after her two blessings that she left behind. Her oldest, MaeLeah, calls me her “mama-nana”, and it breaks my heart to hear her say this. She reminds me of her mom daily. Raphael looks exactly like his mom. Even though she is no longer here on earth, I know for a fact that she lives through her beautiful, amazing children. Both Jocelyn and Jade were the most beautiful people you would ever meet," Tianna concludes.