Michigan woman's slaying spurs focus on violence against indigenous women

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Demonstrators gathered outside the Detroit federal courthouse on Tuesday with a message: Don't ignore attacks against indigenous women and children.

"We are speaking for everyone in our whole community ... that has lost their life to something like this," said Azhanae Ailing, who traveled from Lansing to join the rally. "This reminds people that we're still here."

The rally was spurred by the slaying last year of Nangonhs Massey, who belonged to the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and lived in Isabella County. Friends and relatives as well as others from across the state assembled amid a larger movement to highlight missing and murdered American Indian women as well as their families.

"We are speaking for everyone in our whole community ... that has lost their life to something like this," said Azhanae Ailing, who traveled from Lansing to join the crowd. "This reminds people that we're still here."

The attendees, including those in traditional attire, danced, played drums and shared prayers as part of a ceremony aimed at promoting healing and raising awareness, they said.

It coincided with a hearing scheduled Tuesday at U.S. District Court for the case involving the suspect in Massey's death, Kaden Gilbert.

Massey, a member of Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, died in November.

She was charged in a criminal complaint last year with offenses including first-degree murder, records show. The hearing Tuesday was moved to August. 

An attorney listed as representing Gilbert did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night on the case.

Some say justice has been slow for Massey and other women affiliated with Michigan's 12 federally recognized Indian tribes.

"It's been 218 days (since) she was murdered back in her own home," her mother, Melissa Pamp, told The Detroit News on Tuesday. "... With time passing, people tend to forget. We’re not going to let that happen." 

Mount Pleasant police have said Massey, 21, and a man were stabbed at an apartment complex early on Nov. 16. Federal authorities said the incident happened at the Isabella Indian Reservation.

She and her then 2-year-old son had been living there for a month, Pamp said.

"The night she was murdered, she was holding a birthday party for someone," said her stepfather, Miengun Pamp. "She was just very caring, loving and fun-loving. ... I want people to realize that our daughter's murder is part of an epidemic that our people are facing. Native women are just far too often victims of homicide."

Native Americans protest outside the federal courthouse in Detroit on Tuesday, demanding justice for Nangonhs-Ba Massey, a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, who was stabbed to death in Mount Pleasant, leaving behind an infant son.

Tuesday's event came weeks after family members, advocates and government leaders commemorated a national day of awareness for violence against indigenous women and children. 

A 2018 report by the National Congress of American Indians found that four of five Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetime.

An Associated Press investigation in 2018 found tribes for years have been unable to directly access money in a federal crime victims support program, even as federal data showed more than half of Native American women faced sexual or domestic violence. On certain reservations, Native American women were killed at a rate 10 times the national average.

Experts at the time blamed a lack of funding and resources at police departments and jurisdictional gaps between local, federal and tribal law enforcement. 

In 2018, Congress passed Savanna's Act, which directed the Department of Justice to develop, revise and review law enforcement protocols related to missing or murdered Native Americans.

The next year, then-President Donald Trump launched Operation Lady Justice to address the issue of missing or murdered indigenous people, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr invested $1.5 million to hire Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons coordinators in 11 states.

In Michigan, two Upper Peninsula Indian tribes have been assigned through a pilot program to work with federal, state and local law enforcement officials to create better response and investigation protocols in cases of missing and murdered indigenous people, The News reported in January.

A large group of people, most wearing traditional Native American clothing, danced and played drums during a protest over violence against indigeonus women and children.

President Joe Biden also has promised to bolster resources to address the issue and better consult with tribes to hold perpetrators accountable and keep communities safe.

Those who spoke out Tuesday say they hope for a swifter response to violence.

"We just want people to know the case so this doesn’t happen again," Ailing said. "Everybody deserves justice."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.