We speak with the parents of Mika Westwolf, a 22-year-old Indigenous woman struck and killed in March by a driver as she was walking home along the highway in the early morning hours. The parents and allies are on a “Justice to Be Seen” march to call for justice and an investigation. Westwolf was a member of the Blackfeet Tribe and was also Diné, Cree and Klamath. The driver has been identified as Sunny White, a suspected white nationalist whose children are reportedly named “Aryan” and “Nation” and were in the car at the time of the crash. White has not been charged in connection with Westwolf’s death, but it’s part of an apparent pattern in which many Indigenous people are killed or hit by vehicles along Highway 93. “They need to hear us and see us,” says Westwolf’s mother, Carissa Heavy Runner. “Listen to our stories and feel our pain and see our pain.” Erica Shelby, a tribal legal advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women, discusses the details of the case and how she is in Washington, D.C., to demand action from lawmakers. “Everybody has the same story about the same players, the same agencies, the same police, the same attorneys,” says Shelby. “Enough is enough.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.
This week, community members in Montana held a series of “Justice to Be Seen” walks to demand justice for many Indigenous people killed or hit by vehicles there along Highway 93. They’re focusing on Mika, on Mika Westwolf, 22-year-old Indigenous woman struck and killed in March by a driver as she was walking home along the highway in the early morning hours.
The driver was identified as Sunny White, a suspected white nationalist, whose two children, who were in the car, are reportedly named “Aryan” and “Nation.” They were in the car at the time of the crash. Sunny White has not been charged in connection with Mika’s death.
Mika Westwolf was a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, also Diné, Cree and Klamath. She was an avid athlete and poet. This is Mika speaking in 2016 about graduating from Big Sky High School.
MIKA WESTWOLF: My name is Mika Westwolf. I’m a student at Missoula Big Sky High School and a member of the Blackfeet Nation. I am also Navajo, Cree and Klamath. Earning a high school diploma would mean that I could get into a good college or help my people and get a good job. My mom helps me a lot, because she always helps me out with my work when I’m struggling, or she always gets after me to do my work and always tells me to try my hardest and tells me that I can do anything I want if I just put my mind to it. My plans after graduation is to go to the SKC College. What I want to do is there’s a program there that, like, you can be a dentist’s assistant. And that’s what I want to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Mika Westwolf, speaking in 2016. Her life was tragically cut short in March.
And for more on the calls for justice in her death, we’re joined by in Washington, D.C., by Erica Shelby, a tribal legal advocate for missing, murdered Indigenous women. And we begin in Arlee, Montana, with Mika’s parents — her mother, Carissa Heavy Runner, and father, Kevin Howard.
Our deep condolences for your loss. Can you tell us about your daughter, Mika, what kind of person she was, what were her aspirations, and why you’re walking now, why you’re on this walk to demand justice?
CARISSA HEAVY RUNNER: Hi. Yes, Mika was a very loud, curious, energetic, very intelligent, active little girl, until she was, you know, a young woman. She read a lot. She did a lot of writing. She got to travel all the way to Nepal. She had a love for being outdoors. She wanted to hike everywhere, camp in the mountains, travel. And she wanted to go back to Nepal and climb the mountains there. She fell in love with it there. And she danced powwows since before she could walk, and I had to help her. And she just was a strong, intelligent Native woman. And I know she would be right here. If I wasn’t in this situation for fighting for justice for my daughter and it was for someone else, she would be right beside me. She was a little activist.
KEVIN HOWARD: And we’re doing this walk. We want Lake County to investigate these kind of crimes, something that in the past they haven’t done. So, if they’re not going to do it, we’re going to do it for them, or we’re going to force them to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Erica Shelby, you’re in Washington, D.C. Explain what you believed happened. Was this an unintentional car crash, just a tragedy, or why you believe that Mika Westwolf may have been deliberately run down?
ERICA SHELBY: Well, when we spoke with James Lapotka, the county attorney, he explained to us that, you know, the tox had come back on Sunny. He had also taken it from Mika, which we still don’t know why. And she had trace amounts of fentanyl and meth, nanograms.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Sunny?
ERICA SHELBY: There was no skid marks, no brake marks — yeah, Sunny White. And so —
AMY GOODMAN: The driver.
ERICA SHELBY: The driver. And so, I mean, it’s not regulated, like THC or alcohol, where you can give it a DUI at a certain percentage. So, how we understood it is, you can — it’s legal to have these in your system and be on the road. But if they’re trying to tell us that that wasn’t a factor in her driving, well, then, it can only leave that this was intentional.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do skid marks have to do with anything, the fact that there weren’t skid marks? What does that say to you, Erica?
ERICA SHELBY: You know when you hit a deer. You know when you — we live in Montana. We hit deer. You know when you hit something. And the fact that she didn’t brake, that she didn’t swerve, that there’s no sign of that, tells me — it indicates to me that at least it needs further investigation. And he can go off of — you know, the county attorney, Lapotka, said, you know, that nothing indicated that it was intentional to him. That’s very superficial. And he’s explained to us that he doesn’t make determinations until he gets final reports. So how is he making determinations like that?
AMY GOODMAN: And what are you doing in Washington, Erica Shelby? What are your plans in bringing this case to the nation’s capital?
ERICA SHELBY: Carissa and Kevin started this walk. And at the beginning, we didn’t know how big it was. And then we got there, and there were so many people. And everybody has the same story about the same players, the same agencies, the same police, the same attorneys. And it’s enough is enough. And they’ve been alienated, and they’re isolated, and they’re made to look crazy. And they eventually burn out. This system, it breaks us down. Where they’re supposed to serve and protect, they’re victim blaming. They’re breaking us down. They’re overcriminalizing us. We’re overrepresented in prisons. We’re overrepresented in the missing persons cases. We’re overrepresented in the murder cases. We’re only 5% of the state population, but in 2021 we were 30% of the missing peoples population.
So, something has to change. And I’m here to get the attention of the people in D.C. — Tester, Daines, Murkowski, Schatz, everybody on that Senate Committee for Indian Affairs —
AMY GOODMAN: All the senators you’re mentioning.
ERICA SHELBY: — the president, everybody. He was the one who supported VAWA, who wrote VAWA, who got VAWA in there, the Violence Against Women Act. He made sure Indigenous women were included. Now we need him now. He spoke about the MMIW crisis at the State of the Union. He needs to come now and step up and see what’s going on, on our rez.
AMY GOODMAN: Carissa and Kevin, I want to give you the last —
ERICA SHELBY: And it’s happening on other rezes, too.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to give you the last word, as the parents of Mika. You are in the last day of the Mika Matters Walk. If you can talk about the significance of ending at the steps of the Lake County Courthouse? We just have about a minute.
CARISSA HEAVY RUNNER: Yes. For me, personally, and I imagine for everyone else, it’s going to say a lot, us walking from Arlee all the way to the outside of the courthouse, because we want to hold them accountable. They need to step up. They need to hear us and see us and the other families, hear their stories and the frustration, and not only them, but the world, to listen to our stories and feel our pain, see our pain, that we are trying to make a difference and change and hold those in charge accountable.
KEVIN HOWARD: Lake County has —
AMY GOODMAN: And Kevin?
KEVIN HOWARD: Lake County has a long history of corruption and unfair blaming of Native Americans. And it’s got to be — it’s got to be fair and equal. So we’re going to hold Lake County accountable. We’re going to ensure that the Montana Highway Patrol is accountable. They have a long history of not investigating crimes against Native. If it was reversed, if it’s a Native-on-white crime, those are heavily investigated, heavily enforced. So, there’s a disparity there that needs to end. So, that’s our goal.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both. And again, our condolences to you both, Kevin Howard and Carissa Heavy Runner, parents of Mika Westwolf. And I want to thank Erica Shelby, tribal legal advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women.