116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Rita Papakee’s family last saw her more than seven years ago.
At about 1 p.m. Jan. 16, 2015, Papakee, 41, left work at the Meskwaki Bingo Casino and Hotel in Tama County. She was reported missing by her family on Feb. 18, 2015, to the Meskwaki Nation Police Department after she did not pick up her last paycheck.
“Everybody is still wondering: Where is she, where is she?” said Iris Roberts, Papakee’s mother.
Indigenous people like Papakee are missing in Iowa, but disappearances span the nation.
In 2021, 9,572 Native Americans were reported missing, according to information from the National Crime Information Center. Of those reported missing, 54.4 percent were women. Indigenous women and girls also face murder rates 10 times higher than the national average, according to research compiled in 2018 by the National Congress of American Indians.
The key findings of interviews with tribal leaders, loved ones of missing relatives and Iowa officials show:
- Because many Indigenous women are murdered off tribal land, who has authority to investigate cases can get murky.
- There is a lack of data on cases, such as not knowing the tribe a person belongs to.
- And often the effort to keep looking rests with family, friends or tribal members. Some of these missing person reports become cold cases, and Iowa lacks a dedicated cold case unit. (A bill that would create a cold case unit in the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation did not pass the Iowa Legislature this year.)
The leaders of RISE, which stands for Resources for Indigenous Survivor Empowerment, said it’s a crisis that often is unheard of outside of these communities.
“I think a lot of people outside of the community aren’t even aware of what MMIW is,” said Nicole Lepley, director of RISE, referring to the acronym for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. “Just knowing what it is, looking it up and becoming more aware of the rate of violence against Indigenous peoples (is important).”
Lepley, who is not Indigenous, emphasized the need for more non-Natives to understand the issues facing Indigenous people.
“Most often, perpetrators aren’t Indigenous. They aren’t from the community,” she said. “They come to tribal lands and commit crimes and aren’t prosecuted because of issues with whose jurisdiction it is. I think people who aren’t from the community don’t know those things.”
In 2021, 107 out of the 6,300 missing person reports in Iowa involved Native Americans, according to statistics from the Iowa Department of Public Safety. Of those cases, 53 remain active.
Native Americans make up 0.5 percent of Iowa’s nearly 3.2 million residents, according to the most recent U.S. census, and 1.69 percent of the missing persons reports in Iowa in 2021 involved Native Americans. One issue: State data is not broken down by gender, so it’s unclear how many are women.
Iowa woman’s disappearance
Just one disappearance can affect a community, especially one as close-knit as the 1,450-member Meskwaki Nation.
“It’s unsettling, and it seems like since that happened and we haven’t been able to find a fellow tribal member, it’s kind of like a dark cloud looming,” said tribal member and Meskwaki Police Department Commissioner Mark Bear.
Within the 8,100-acre Meskwaki Settlement, 4.5 miles west of Tama and Toledo, it’s difficult to go anywhere without seeing a missing person’s flyer asking to bring Papakee home. Flyers hang on the Tribal Center and in the police department.
Papakee is one of the first instances of missing and murdered Indigenous women experienced by the Meskwaki Nation, also known as the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, said Mylene Wanatee, Meskwaki Family Services director.
Papakee was a mother not only to her own children but served as one to nieces and nephews. She loved baking and holidays and would plan activities for the children on Halloween and Easter, said Roberts, her mother.
“She was really kindhearted,” Roberts said. “She would go out of her way to help people if she really thought they needed help.”
Papakee knew how to make people laugh, especially her mother, with whom she was close.
“Oh, my stomach would hurt. I’d say, ‘Quit now, Rita!’ and she would keep going, and we’d laugh some more,” Roberts said.
Roberts’ only wish now is for her daughter to come home.
“I know it’s a wide area. Where do you look? And just trying to figure out where she might be, it’s just really kind of hard because of the way that the settlement is,” Roberts said. “What I would like is for her to be found so we could have closure.”
Papakee’s children have all struggled with their mother’s disappearance, Roberts said. The oldest is 27, another turned 19, a third is 17, and the youngest is 14. The family has asked for their names to not be published.
During the last seven years, officials have searched for Papakee. The Meskwaki police contacted the Iowa Air Patrol in March 2015 to scour the area from above while community members searched the ground in the following months. Over time, police combed pig farms, wells, highways, structures, fields, dirt piles, areas of water and under bridges surrounding the settlement.
In May 2019, the Sahnish Scouts, an Indigenous North Dakotan nonprofit organization specializing in search and recovery, looked along the settlement and in Tama County.
“We believe that just one tip could open this investigation wide-open. We just do not know when that day will come,” Police Chief Jacob Molitor said in a 2019 news release.
The police declined to comment further.
The tribal council is offering a reward, now at $100,000 from tribal revenue, for information leading to the whereabouts of Papakee.
“We’re all doing our due diligence to make sure that nobody forgets and that we’re still looking for her. She knows that, too, wherever she is, we’re still looking for her,” Bear, the police commissioner, said. “It’s still looming in unexplainable ways. That’s just from a tribal member standpoint.”
43 years of seeking justice
Other Indigenous families in Iowa and the nation have been searching for answers to missing or murdered persons cases. They are often the ones who keep cases on people’s minds.
For 43 years, relatives have sought answers after Keara Lee Cosow, 3, was killed in a fire at the Hilltop Motel in Red Oak on July 12, 1979. No criminal charges have been filed in her death.
Keara’s mother is a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Keara’s older sister, Jordan D’Mario, has dedicated herself to bringing awareness to Keara’s death and the inconsistencies in records. She uses social media networks such as Facebook.
The Facebook page, named after Keara, has over 200 likes and contains photos of Keara, her grave and newspaper reports from 1979. The case eventually made its way to private investigator Janet Franson, a semiretired cold case and homicide detective from Florida. Franson tried to find an organization to take up Keara’s case but was unable to do so.
“I can still see that baby’s face,” Franson said. Franson and D’Mario said they believe the case should be reinvestigated.
“I just want Keara’s truth to come out,” D’Mario said. “I want justice for Keara.”
Challenges to investigating
Most murder cases are committed on Native land by non-Native people, and jurisdiction becomes cloudy among the state, federal and tribal law enforcement, especially when prosecuting non-Natives, according to a 2016 investigative report from the Urban Indian Health Institute, which is a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board.
This complex process can make it challenging to investigate. The institute’s report also highlighted a lack of an exact number for MMIW across the United States.
In 2020, a federal task force was created by former President Donald Trump to address the MMIW crisis.
“We see there’s federal funding going to this task force and this is going to be what they’re going to work on, but we still don’t have accurate information,” said Lepley, RISE’s director.
Federal law requires federal, state and local law enforcement — but not tribal law enforcement agencies — to report missing people under age 21 but not those over 21, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Another Iowa cold case involves Sandra S. Vanderhoef, 42, a Native woman who was reported missing to the Webster County Sheriff's Department on Sept. 22, 1986. Her last known location was at the Des Moines bus depot.
In the 36 years since, the department has lost all public records on Vanderhoef.
Vanderhoef’s disappearance has been classified by the Iowa Department of Public Safety Information Clearinghouse as “Endangered/Physical,” which includes a person of any age who is missing under circumstances indicating their safety is in danger.
Papakee and Vanderhoef’s cases are classified as cold cases, unsolved criminal investigations that remain open pending new evidence.
It is uncommon for a state not to have a cold case unit, said Iowa DCI Associate Director Mitch Mortvedt.
The current option is for local law enforcement or agents from the DCI to spend time between investigations and trials to follow up on other investigations. Most cold cases are investigated by the DCI, but the organization must be requested by a police chief, a sheriff or a court attorney in order to act.
Other priorities or more urgent cases can come up, and then “the cold case gets put away again,” Mortvedt said.
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