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Native University of Montana student works to create missing persons database

Haley Omeasoo is working to create the first DNA database of Blackfeet Nation members
Haley Omeasoo
Posted at 8:50 AM, Apr 08, 2024

MISSOULA — Haley Omeasoo was already studying forensic science at the University of Montana when she saw the poster that redefined her life.

The 2017 poster announced that her former high school classmate, Ashley Loring HeavyRunner, had gone missing on the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana. Just 20 at the time, HeavyRunner has never been found in the seven years since.

HeavyRunner’s plight, and the cases of other missing and murdered indigenous persons (MMIP), gave Omeasoo a new mission: to use her skills to help families searching for lost loved ones, and use DNA analysis to return the remains of Native Americans to their families and tribal groups.

Omeasoo, a registered member of the Hopi Nation, is also a Blackfeet descendant who grew up on the Blackfeet reservation. She is now a Ph.D. student in forensic and molecular anthropology at UM, working to create the first DNA database of Blackfeet Nation members. She also hopes that one day, she can set up a forensic science lab on the reservation – the first of its kind in Montana.

If unidentifiable remains were found, DNA in the database could determine whether the person had been a member of the tribe and could be used to link the remains to family members with similar DNA markers.

To work toward that goal, Omeasoo and her husband, Blackfeet tribal member Vince Omeasoo, set up a company known as Ohkomi Forensics, based on the Blackfeet word for “to use one’s voice.”

“We stand as unwavering advocates for those who have gone missing or have been tragically taken from their families,” the company’s website says. “We work tirelessly to raise awareness, demand justice and support affected communities in their journey towards healing.”

The aching search for answers by families of missing relatives resonates strongly with Omeasoo, 27, who is the mother of two children, Sage, 8, and Soren, 2.

But she also sees the tragedy in broader terms.

“As Indigenous people, we are all impacted by this issue in one way or another,” Omeasoo said. “Because this issue doesn’t get as much media attention as it should, and our people do not have the resources and support to combat this issue, it’s time we started to find ways to provide those resources to our home communities.”

Missing Persons in Montana

Montana is at the center of a grim trend. According to the Montana governor’s office, Native people make up about 7% of the state’s population but account for a quarter of missing persons cases.

“It’s not a new issue,” Omeasoo said. “It’s been going on for a long time – too long – and I think the media is just now kind of catching wind of it.”

Omeasoo’s mentor, UM Associate Professor of Anthropology Meradeth Snow, finds inspiration in Omeasoo’s dedication and hard work.

“I have such high hopes for Haley,” said Snow, who co-chairs UM’s anthropology department. “I know she is going to be a mouthpiece for communities that need and deserve that, and I hope her work not only will bring more attention to this epidemic, but that she is able to build a bridge between the forensic world and the tribes.”

There are many factors that feed into the high rate of MMIP in Montana and elsewhere in the nation.

Poverty, domestic abuse and other social problems are prevalent on many reservations. Sarah Deer, a University of Kansas researcher, said Native women also are more likely to be trafficked in the sex industry.

There also is a lack of law enforcement resources on many reservations.

The Blackfeet Reservation has a tribal police force of about 18 officers to cover a territory larger than the state of Delaware, according to the Missoulian. Depending on vacations and other scheduling factors, there can sometimes be just two officers to cover the entire 1.5-million-acre reservation.

Tribal police also lack full investigative powers in the most serious missing persons cases.

Only federal authorities can investigate and prosecute major felonies on most Native American reservations, including murder and manslaughter. In addition, tribal police only have a limited ability to investigate non-Natives for certain crimes, and on some reservations, non-Natives now outnumber Natives.

Ivan MacDonald, a documentary filmmaker and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, said both the tribal police and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which handles initial federal investigations on missing persons cases, are understaffed. In some instances, he said, by the time federal investigators get involved, the trail has gone cold and evidence is scant or missing.

Native American spiritual views

Using DNA analysis on Native American remains faces special challenges.

Many tribes oppose DNA analysis because traditional forensic techniques require taking bone samples that are then destroyed in the analysis. Even if the sample is small, many tribal groups consider that a desecration of the remains.

Dan Lewerenz, an assistant law professor at the University of North Dakota and a member of the Iowa Nation, said Natives are not anti-science, but they do have a different understanding of human remains than many non-Natives. In Native religious traditions, even natural phenomena like rivers and mountains may have a spirit.

“For many Indigenous people, the dead are not dead,” Lewerenz said. “They are still with us in spirit in a way that is much more tangible than Western understandings.”

For that reason, Omeasoo is using a new technique that can extract DNA from remains without damaging them. Snow said the method was developed by German scientist Elena Essel. It immerses the bones in a type of food preservative and then heats the solution. The DNA then is retrieved from the solution without damaging the bones.

The first samples Omeasoo will apply the technique to probably won’t be missing persons cases, but some of the human remains that are stored at UM, which still need to be returned to their tribal groups under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 1990 federal law.

Universities across the nation have collections of Native remains and artifacts that have come from archaeological digs, or people finding remains while plowing or excavating, or even from people whose families had them sitting in their attics or basements.

Many of the human remains at UM may belong to the nearby Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Omeasoo said, but the lineage of other remains still need to be identified, and she will examine those thought to belong to the Blackfeet Nation.

Specialized DNA kit

To process her DNA samples, Omeasoo uses a special kit from Qiagen, a European genetic science company. The Verogen ForenSeq Kintelligence Kit is designed to look for DNA markers that show how closely people are related to one another.

The kit also avoids using any DNA markers linked to health status, such as genes for breast cancer or hereditary diseases.

That’s important, Omeasoo said, because of the distrust many Native American tribes have toward the misuse of DNA. In the 1990s, scientists collected blood samples from the Havasupai Tribe in Arizona for a study on Type 2 diabetes. Tribal members later discovered the samples had been used for research on schizophrenia and other subjects the tribe had not consented to, and they sued the University of Arizona, which eventually led to a return of all blood samples to the tribe.

The suspicion that Native Americans have about DNA was apparent when Omeasoo began asking tribes to let her collect DNA samples for her original plan, which was to create DNA databases for each tribe in Montana. The Blackfeet so far are the only tribe that has agreed to a DNA database.

The Qiagen kit, which looks for 10,230 familial DNA markers, “makes sense for [tribal identifications] because it removes the kinds of risks that have been seen in the past,” said Kameran Wong, Qiagen’s senior manager of marketing communications.

The Qiagen kit employs the same approach that criminal investigators have used to identify killers by linking their DNA to those of relatives, such as in the Golden State Killer case in California.

Omeasoo wouldn’t use the technique to find criminal suspects but to find relatives of a victim whose unidentified remains have been discovered.

She also has developed other skills that could help in MMIP cases. For her master’s thesis, Omeasoo examined CT scans of facial injuries to people who had been assaulted or killed. In particular, she looked for fractures on the left side of the face, because most assailants are right-handed.

It’s a signature injury that occurs in intimate partner violence and shows up more frequently in women, Omeasoo said. Her work could help investigators determine if intimate partner violence had occurred.

The next steps

Omeasoo plans to earn her Ph.D. in forensic and molecular anthropology next year. In the meantime, she is waiting for the Blackfeet tribe’s Institutional Review Board to sign off on her DNA database project so she can begin collecting cheek swabs from tribal members.

She hopes to get at least 100 samples, which would not only identify markers for family members who are related to each other, but more broadly, could identify markers that are unique to the Blackfeet Nation.

Eventually, she would like to establish a forensic sciences lab on the Blackfeet reservation. The lab would not only do the work of identifying remains but could help police investigate ongoing missing persons cases.

Ohkomi Forensics already received some startup funds from outside organizations and community donors to purchase field equipment and excavating tools for forensic searches on the Blackfeet reservation.

Ivan MacDonald, who works with his sister Ivy to complete a documentary on missing and murdered Blackfeet women, including Ashley HeavyRunner, said Omeasoo’s work could be vital for such families.

MacDonald said missing or adulterated forensic samples are a major reason why federal authorities often don’t pursue missing persons cases on the reservation, so “if we had an opportunity for someone on our reservation to help with that gap and work within that scientific framework, it would be a really amazing opportunity.”

Brad Hall, president of Blackfeet Community College, also supports Omeasoo’s efforts to get tribal approval for her DNA database.

“When a Native student like Haley goes into academia, they have to understand our ways of knowing and then learn the academic ways of knowing,” Hall said. “She’s going about it in the way that every researcher should take note of.”

For Omeasoo herself, her work is all about making connections. She wants to connect tribal groups to the remains of their ancestors, and she wants to connect families of missing relatives to the people they are searching for so desperately.

“Where I’m from,” she said, “we’re all related somehow.”