The tattoo on her left arm is a reminder of the mother she never got the chance to know.
The words under it serve as a memorial to her spirit.
“It says, ‘All of my life is a dance, with the earth and the sky. My song insists that I will never die.’”
Allyse Arce was just seven weeks old when her mother disappeared.
Rae Elaine Tourtillott was a 19-year-old living on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin when she went missing after attending a birthday party in 1986. Her remains were found six months later. Rae Elaine’s unsolved murder is part of a crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – or MMIWG -- in the United States and Canada.
There have been at least 2,448 unique cases of MMIWG are documented in the United States, according to the Sovereign Bodies Institute. They add the number is likely much higher due to underreporting and misclassification, 88% of these cases remain unsolved.
“The MMIW crisis in America is a historical epidemic,” says Kristin Welch, member of the Wisconsin MMIW task force and founder of Waking Women Healing Institute.
Homicide is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women ages one to 19, according to a University of Wyoming study. Indigenous women are more likely to experience violence than any other demographic, the study found.
In some areas, Indigenous women face murder rates ten times the national average and 84% of Indigenous women in America - more than 1.5 million - have experienced violence in their lifetime according to the National Institute of Justice.
“I would call it a genocide rather than an epidemic. It’s a direct attack on our Indigenous women, girls and 2-spirit,” Welch says.
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The MMIW crisis is a point of personal priority for the nation’s most powerful Native American official.
“We’ve had a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis since Europeans came to this continent in the late 1400s.” says Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve in a White House Cabinet. “It has not gone away. It’s prevalent from coast to coast.”
“Since before I was elected to Congress this was an issue that I have been pushing hard to make sure is out in the mainstream and that folks understand how urgent it is.”
Haaland has announced the creation of a new federal Missing and Murdered Unit that will focus on addressing current and cold cases and trying to bridge jurisdictional gaps in investigating and prosecuting cases.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that we are putting our arms around all of those agencies and all of these law enforcement entities so that we can solve this issue together,” Haaland adds.
The pain of Rae Elaine Tourtillott’s death was relived all over again this year. On the same Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, the remains of another young Indigenous woman, Katelyn Kelley, were discovered. Kelley went missing in 2020.
“It baffles me that in 34 years, we haven’t learned anything on how to manage or solve these cases,” Arce said at a MMIW memorial event in Northbrook, Illinois.
“I’m tired of hearing these stories,” Welch added. “These are our sisters. These are our children. And sometimes it feels like it doesn’t end.”