OGLALA, S.D. (KELO) – Across the country, the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons impacts every reservation. For decades, Indigenous women, children and men have either disappeared or been killed, oftentimes with no answers or closure for their families.

Over the next two weeks, KELOLAND News wants to shine a light on the hidden crisis. To do this, a crew of reporters and photographers spent a week visiting with families from the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.

While they were there, they spoke with a family who lost a loved one just three weeks ago.

Maria Makes Him First

On July 17th, the body of Maria Makes Him First was found in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Days later, her loved ones gathered to say goodbye.

“It wasn’t her time to leave us. But we’re here today and we buried my aunt,” Valentina Makes Him First, Maria’s niece, said. “You know, my dad and my uncle, they buried their sister. My cousins, you know, that’s our aunt. That’s our dad’s only sister. And now she’s gone for no reason, no reason at all, it was just a senseless crime that should never happen.”

The Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety says the death is being investigated as a homicide. There were no arrests by the time of her funeral and Maria’s friends and family don’t have many answers.

“I don’t know what goes in a criminal’s mind, maybe they’re on meth or something, I have no idea, I wouldn’t know,” William Makes Him First Sr., Maria’s brother, said.

But what they do know is that Maria didn’t always feel safe on the reservation as a member of the LGBTQ-Two Spirit community.

“She was the kindest, loving, caring person that I knew,” Monique “Muffie” Mousseau, Maria’s friend and relative, said. “She was scared in some situations because our tribe, our people, were very homophobic because of the colonization and the boarding school era. They brought in that religion to hate LGBTQ-Two Spirit people and she had that fear.”

Mousseau says Maria was both her relative and her Two-Spirit mentor. In 2019, Mousseau and her wife brought forward a hate crime protections law, which was passed by the tribal council. Under that law, hate crimes are now punishable by up to one year in jail.

“We want justice for Maria. We want that hate crime to be part of that. We need the violence to stop,” Felipa De Leon-Mousseau, Maria’s friend, said.

The crisis of Missing, Murdered Indigenous Persons impacts everyone — women, children, men and the LGBTQ- Native Two Spirit community.

“It’s not only here in South Dakota, but all across Turtle Island, impacted. It encompasses everything,” De Leon-Mousseau said.

Some cases go unsolved, leaving families to wonder what happened to those they love. Maria’s family hopes this case doesn’t follow that trend

“I want justice for my sister. Right now I feel more anger than sadness, I feel both but anger is what I feel because, and I’m frustrated,” William Makes Him First Sr. said.

“We will do whatever we have to to turn this around and start making these police officers, law enforcement, the administration, these schools, take a look at this – the bullying – and watch for those signs,” Mousseau said.

As friends and family gathered in honor of Maria, they remembered who she was.

“She had a big heart and she connected with a lot of people and she brought a lot of people together,” De Leon-Mousseau said.

“I mean, people came from every walk of life to see her, to be with her,” Phillip Yellow Hawk, Maria’s brother, said. “That in itself says who she was and how she wanted to be and how people remember her. So that’s the biggest thing that we want to push out there, that there’s no reason why this should happen.”

A 38-year-old sister, aunt and friend from Oglala, South Dakota, gone too soon.

“If it’s a person or more than one person, you know, they need to turn themselves in,” Valentina Makes Him First said. “Or if you know who they are, if they’re your family member, you know, turn them in because that’s not right to kill someone for no reason at all.”

“This is her tribe and she should’ve felt safe,” Mousseau said.

Tribal authorities have turned to social media in hopes of finding answers for what happened to Maria. KELOLAND News tried reaching out to the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety for any updates on the case, but has not heard back.