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Fostering curiosity, education and empathy by exploring the controversial and the provocative.

The Search for Ashley Loring HeavyRunner

Published November 9, 2019 | Posted in Social Issues

By: Jessica Bayramian Byerly

In June of 2017, 21-year-old Ashley Loring HeavyRunner disappeared. While no stranger to darker moods and the questionable choices that come standard with young adulthood, Ashley was a smart, resourceful young woman with a good heart and a commitment to helping others. She had a particularly close relationship with her sister, Kimberly Loring HeavyRunner. So, when Kimberly took a three-month trip to Morocco to visit her future husband in the spring of 2017, the sisters developed a pattern of regular phone calls that continued until just a few days before Kimberly’s arrival home. Though not altogether out of character for Ashley, the days of silence she returned to left Kimberly wondering. And worried. In a turn of events both devastating and disturbingly ironic, Ashley Loring HeavyRunner was to become one of the missing and murdered indigenous people, or MMIP, for whom she had advocated in the months leading up to her disappearance.

As part of a larger project investigating MMIP and the systemic impediments to investigation and recovery efforts, I Am Interchange founder Tate Chamberlin and a small crew traveled to the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana to participate in the Annual Ashley’s Walk and MMIP awareness rally, interview Kimberly, and assist the HeavyRunner family in their search efforts.

The awareness rally proved to be the first of many emotionally charged and challenging experiences over the course of those few days in early June. The sheer numbers impacted by MMIP disappearances are staggering. The emotional and physical reality of families left in limbo – mourning, yet not; hopeful, yet not – is heartrending. The lack of answers, motive, direction, and insight is disillusioning. And the virtual nonexistence of consistent, tangible assistance from legal or law enforcement officials is unreal. As Chamberlin later reflected on the dynamic of a similar situation were it to befall him, an arguable example of white privilege, the true nature of the schism becomes unfathomable in relief. “There would be hundreds searching,” reflects Chamberlin. “My family and friends would have called in connections capable of mobilizing a virtual army; they might not even have to. There would be immediate news coverage, alerts, social media.” By comparison, media coverage and more intensive law enforcement might show up eventually, weeks or even months later, after evidence is gone and any trail that may have been left has run cold. That awareness, remarks Chamberlin, is the hardest to assimilate.

Chamberlin’s interview with Kimberly proved equally illuminating. Her recounting of the events immediately following her sister’s disappearance is sobering. Local law enforcement, what incomprehensibly little there is for the vast 1.5 million acres the Reservation encompasses, was slow to respond and slower still to actively engage. The little evidence that was recovered – a sweater covered in oil and buried underground was lost for months and then mysteriously “recovered” when Kimberly’s congressional testimony shed less-than-flattering light on the investigative help her and her family received from the BIA and related officials. In the end, Kimberly and her family are left with a hole so deep and devastatingly encompassing that there is little room for hope, less still for healing. The only place that remains spans mental acres as vast as the Reservation itself: Who did this and why? Did she suffer? Is she suffering still? Will we ever find her? Could we have done something differently? Can we still?

So they search. Desperate and with little support, Kimberly and her family have combed the Reservation relentlessly over the past two years, following the meager vestiges of evidence and occasional leads before they could dissolve into the wide-open spaces forever. On June 9th, Kimberly, assorted relatives and friends, and the Interchange team greeted the chilly gray morning with all they could muster of hope. They set out for a remote area of grizzly bear country at the edge of the Reservation on a recovery search, one of countless such investigations Ashley’s family has led since she went missing. Armed with bullets and bear spray, the crew dredged muddy ditches and impassable ravines, dug holes, and rummaged through refuse in a culturally universal hunt for closure. While repeats of past grizzly encounters were a primary safety concern, the threat from predators of the two-legged variety was equally so. Blindly cresting the hill leading onto one of the few active suspects and purported drug dealer’s property as blood-curdling electronica blared from the residence erased all concern for furry foe and shattered any sense of “safety in numbers.” There were tense moments when the group was granted the request to search, but the trail that led them there ran as cold as the darkening evening sky. Again.

MMIP is the tragedy that it is, in part, because there is simply no real help. There is nowhere to turn. There is no expert or organization on which to depend to do the hard work of solving an ever-increasing number of puzzles. The sovereignty designations intended as a sheepish apology for past intrusions have created unexpected lawlessness, leaving vulnerable populations exposed, underserved, and unprotected.

Meanwhile, the search for Ashley – and the many others like her – continues, so that those who are lost might be found.

  • Robert Grant Alexander
  • Jason Bruno Azure
  • Sade Lisette Caye
  • Kylie Faith Hill
  • Freda Jane Knowshisgun
  • James Limberhand
  • Ashley Mariah Loring HeavyRunner
  • Clarence McNabb
  • Darrell Morris
  • Jermaine Charlo
  • Matthew Grant
  • Israel Shorting
  • Henny Scott
  • ELJay Young Running Crane
  • Tristen Gray
  • Darlene Billie
  • Patricia Duckhead
  • Bill Whitequills
  • Amy Oldcoyote
  • Joshua K. Battiest
  • Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind
  • Richard George Roastingstick
  • Kylee Rockabove
  • Hannah Harris
  • Autumn Whitewolf
  • Shyanna Whitewolf

Photos: Ben Johnson and MT Shots

[UPDATE]: Recent actions taken by the government to address MMIP:

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Posts in This Series

Where is Ashley?

I Am Interchange traveled to Browning, Montana, to explore concerns surrounding missing indigenous people, particularly women, from reservations throughout Montana […]

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