(Editor’s Note: This story is reprinted with permission from the Hungry Horse News.)
Her ride on the bucking horse was short. But the message she carried drew a big applause from the crowd at the Brash Blue Moon rodeo last week.
But then again, Bookakii Rita Bustos is no ordinary 13 year old. At the rodeo, the Blackfeet girl wore a blood red hand print over her face, to draw awareness to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls as she competed in the Ranch Broncs. The hand print across the face is the symbol of the movement.
The horse dumped Bustos unceremoniously on her head in a few seconds and she got the wind knocked out of her. But the teen raised her arms up the air immediately and the crowd responded with a huge round of applause for her efforts.
Bustos said she’s had family members of her own murdered and her good friend, Margaret Whitegrass’s daughter, Amy Sue Whitegrass was murdered in 2018
The crimes are often heinous.
On Halloween night 2018, Amy Sue Whitegrass, 28, and Lindsay Whiteman, 38, both got into a truck with a pair of teenage men.
Whitegrass was shot to death and Whiteman was killed when the teens fled the scene and she stood in front of the truck.
The crash occurred at Starr School Road and Meadowlark Drive in the town of Starr School. Whiteman was standing in the middle of the southbound lane and was struck by a vehicle traveling southbound on Starr School Road. Whiteman was then dragged or carried by the vehicle, coming to rest when the vehicle turned west onto Meadowlark Drive, according to police reports.
Esandro Roman Rodriguez and Ernesto Andreas Lopez, both 17, of Browning face multiple charges in the incident.
They have pleaded out to state charges in the case. The federal homicide case has yet to go to trial, Margaret Whitegrass said.
According to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, four out of five Native women are affected by violence today.
The U.S Department of Justice found that American Indian women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average.
Homicide is the third leading cause of death among 10-24 years of age and the fifth leading cause of death for Native American women and Alaska Native women between 25 and 34 years of age according for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Homicide.
The state has taken action to address the problem.
Native Americans make up about six percent of Montana’s population, but account for more than 27% of all statewide missing person’s cases, according to data from the Montana Department of Justice.
That number is likely higher, as Indigenous missing persons go unreported or are misreported.
Native Americans are nearly four times more likely to be victims of homicide than the state’s general population, the Justice Department notes.
After passing a law in the 2019 legislative session, the department set up a task force to try to address the problem and has hired a missing person specialist, currently held by Brian Frost.
Technology also comes into play. When a person goes missing, an alert goes out on cell phones in the region.
Bustos remains troubled.
“There’s been a lot of cases that haven’t been solved,” she said.
She said she isn’t sure if she’ll wear the red hand again at rodeos. She trains near her home, riding horses bareback with her friend, Robert Whitegrass, who competes in bull riding. His sister is Amy Sue Whitegrass.
Bustos said she wants to continue to help reservation communities when she gets older.
“I’d like to be a global volunteer,” she said.