MMIR walk raises awareness, remembers victims
FLATHEAD RESERVATION — From June 13 to June 16, families and members of the community marched to remember lives lost along U.S. Highway 93. The 2023 Justice to be Seen Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) Walk took place through the Flathead Reservation.
Starting out in Arlee and ending in Polson, each day of the march remembered a life lost: Mika Westwolf, Maureena “Mena” Twoteeth, Aiden Finley, and Sonia Spotted Bear. The march culminated at the Lake County Courthouse with speeches from families impacted by Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) and included honor and healing songs.
In each these cases where lives were lost alongside Highway 93, the families shared a common frustration: the feeling of a lack of communication with officials.
Finley, 20, lost his life in Pablo in late 2018. The family believes the driver never stopped, leaving Finley to die. The hit and run driver has not been found. The family has marched for him in the years since with the rallying cry “someone knows.”
Spotted Blanket, 31, lost her life in April near St. Ignatius. Little has been released about her death so far. Westwolf, 22, lost her life in March to a driver who allegedly left the scene. The woman being investigated on suspicion of hitting her, Sunny White, is a suspected white nationalist based on her children’s names released in a Missing Endangered Person Advisory from Butte-Silver Bow Law Enforcement, “Aryan” and “Nation.” White is currently being prosecuted through the Butte court system accused of one count of burglary and one count of parenting interference. The parenting interference charge is for taking off with her non-custodial children days after the driving incident. She has been released on bond with her next court date set for July 27. Charges have yet to be brought against her in relation to Westwolf’s death, though Highway Patrol public information officer Jay Nelson recently confirmed that following White’s May court appearance, she is being treated as a suspect in Mika’s death. The investigation is ongoing, waiting on search warrants and reports from the state crime lab.
County Attorney Lapotka told news outlets that he still doesn’t have a timeline on when he expects to receive a final report from the Highway Patrol and wrote, “The Lake County Attorney’s Office will make its charging decision in this case based on the full facts as determined by the law enforcement investigation that is currently underway.” The family has shared concerns about the way evidence has been handled in the investigation, as well as officials pursuing toxicology results for the victim in addition to the driver.
Twoteeth, 31, also lost her life alongside US Highway 93 near St. Ignatius in 2022. While the driver has been reported to be cooperating with officials and no arrests have been made, Twoteeth’s mother, Bonnie Asencio, has expressed her pain around trying to learn more from officials about the investigation.
“This was my second daughter who was killed on these roads,” Asencio shared. Ruby Saluskin, 24, was the first daughter she lost, killed on Highway 35 near Polson in 2020. According to Asencio, her daughters and husband went to the scene and began gathering information from witnesses in houses in the area and brought the information to the highway patrol, feeling they had to investigate themselves. Asencio felt that need again, she shared, when her second daughter, Twoteeth, passed away.
“I just want to know what is going on that they couldn’t sit down and listen to me, and what I said was not important enough to share information from me. Did they think I was trying to sue them? No, I’m a mom that wants answers. Just the simplest answers,” Asencio said. “I wanted to know where did (the girl who hit Twoteeth) go? Was she booked, or did she wait for her parents and go home? How did they know that night when they tested her that she was clean? As far as I know, testing takes weeks to be returned.”
From there, Asencio admitted she became angry for a while. “I wanted to know why is this happening, how come I had to investigate? How come I had to go talk to the clerk at the gas station? How come I had to confront them about the video tapes? How come I had to ask why they didn’t interview the first woman on the scene who stayed with my daughter’s body? I’m asking them these questions and not one single one got answered.”
While officials may be restricted from certain discussion about ongoing investigations, families at the Justice to be Seen MMIR Walk shared that the months that go by after the loss of their loved ones, with no communication from officials, are a source of great frustration and pain as they wait for any form of closure. The march, put together by the moms of the victims, is an effort to raise awareness and find a path toward improving communication and transparency about investigations done by the Montana Highway Patrol, as well as honor and remember their children.
“The mother of Mika, Carissa (Heavy Runner), she always reminds us that we do it with love … This is for our children; our children are here with us walking. We’re teaching them right now,” Asencio stated. “I felt we made an impact when we spoke to the Tribal Council. I shared with them that I feel that a door has been opened that can never be closed again. I don’t want my grandkids to ever think that it’s okay to give up when their voice isn’t heard. They need to find another way. So, what we’re doing today is teaching them … that if you’re not heard, then keep looking and find your avenue, and (go about it) in a way that leads to healing.”