MOORHEAD – While Justin Critt and his defense lawyer began arguing innocence to the murder of a Moorhead woman Monday morning, the mother of a missing Indigenous woman sat two rows behind, silent, but screaming with questions.
Linda Anderson wondered if her daughter, Melissa “Mitz” Eagleshield, missing nearly four years, would ever see justice. Would her daughter’s possible killer ever see the inside of a Minnesota courtroom? Was she attacked? Could Critt, a casual boyfriend of Eagleshield’s, and one of the last people to reportedly see her alive, know anything about her daughter’s disappearance? How much did Critt know?
Was she looking at the back of her daughter’s killer’s head?
Admittedly, Critt looked different from when Anderson first met him. He has put on weight since his 2016 arrest for allegedly bludgeoning Melissa Willcoxon to death with a hammer. Double chin, plaid shirt, khaki pants, a neck tattoo peaked out from beneath his collar.
“When I first met him I knew he was using,” Anderson said. Critt has a lengthy rap sheet including arson, assault, and felony drug convictions. “He was thin – meth looking – now he has put on weight.
“I want to ask him what he meant when he told his cousin that he knew what happened to her [Eagleshield], when he said it was a drug deal gone bad.”
A member of the White Earth Reservation, Eagleshield, part white, part Native, lived in Detroit Lakes, but she had addiction problems, Anderson said. She also had children, grandchildren, and when sober had a sense of humor and was a good mother. Her children are grown now, but Eagleshield’s grandchildren are still young, and when they ask where their grandma is, there’s only one answer.
“Grandma is lost in the woods and nobody can find her,” Anderson said. Eagleshield was last seen at a reclusive forest cabin outside of Detroit Lakes on October 5, 2014. “That’s a tough thing for a young kid to think about.”
Becker County Sheriff Todd D. Glander said Eagleshield’s disappearance is a rarity for the county, and that the investigation is ongoing. “It’s still an open case and we are actively following up on leads as they come in,” Glander said. “We have not forgotten.” Glander couldn’t say if Critt is a person of interest in Eagleshield’s case is still active. “The longer it goes the probability of closure becomes less,” Glander said. “We have good people working on this and we’ll do whatever we can. We are going to be persistent to the end.”
“I just wish whoever was involved would be honest and tell,” Anderson said.
Over the years she’s heard all the whispers: parts of her daughter’s body were thrown along Highway 113, she was dumped into a pond, cadaver dogs followed her scent to a beaver’s dam, she was buried along Highway 16. So far, despite repeated attempts to find her, volunteer searchers and law enforcement are still stumped.
The Becker County Sheriff’s Department has taken Eagleshield’s case seriously, Anderson said, and detectives assigned to the case are never difficult to find.
“You never think it will happen to you,” Anderson said. “It’s been really hard when there aren’t any answers. What do you do? I hope we find her, but I don’t think she is alive.”
One reason that she believes her daughter is no longer alive is because her debit account has not been touched since she vanished. Another is that her daughter didn’t take her shoes, her purse, or a coat before disappearing.
Currently, Eagleshield is one of 23 missing person cases in North Dakota, according to the Charley Project, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the missing. Minnesota has more than five times as many, with 118 documented missing person cases. How many women were Indigenous, cases bogged down in jurisdictional issues, is a difficult number to track.
Until now, no governmental department has kept track of missing and murdered Indigenous women, who on some reservations are murdered 10 times the national average.
Justice for Native Women is one nonprofit organization that has kept records of missing or murdered Indigenous women, or MMIW. The organizer, Makoons Miller-Tanner, part Oneida, part Ojibwe, has archived nearly 600 active reports from across the nation, and is “just scratching the surface,” she said.
“I decided to compile the information because I'd heard over and over from my community that this was an expansive issue, but couldn't find any public data to support that,” Miller-Tanner said.
Miller-Tanner wanted to uncover if the crisis was as large an “epidemic” as she heard. Through her research and data collection, she’s discovered others who are also compiling statistics who have collected more than 1,000 missing Indigenous.
“I don't think I've really answered that question, but in the meantime, I'm giving visibility to cases that need it,” Miller-Tanner said. “I personally don't believe in gatekeeping information even though I understand the historically bad way in which researchers have used information to misrepresent Native people, I feel like this is the sort of thing everyone should know and have access to. And they do, it's just not compiled like this anyplace else.”
The jurisdictional nightmare pertaining to crimes committed by and against Native people stem from a lack of caring, she said.
“Crimes perpetrated on tribal lands by non-Natives must be investigated and charged in an already overburdened federal court, and frankly their eyes are on the big cases (drug busts, gang related stuff) and they don't really care as much about missing native women or violence perpetrated against them,” Miller-Tanner said.
“I think the larger part of the issue is how vulnerable the Native population is. Roughly a fourth of us live in poverty. Like any poor community many of our people turn to crime or drugs to see themselves through. This invites gang culture onto reservations who also demean and visit violence upon native women.”
Sexual violence against Native women is considered almost a “norm,” she said. Native children in Minnesota are also 10 times more likely to be placed in foster care.
“I would say racism is an issue, in the sense that I see people referring to it as a ‘Native problem’ that we have to ‘resolve on our own’ as if we exist in a vacuum untouched by dominant culture,” Miller-Tanner said. “It's an easier excuse to swallow for people than the fact that systematic oppression and historical wrongs have brought us to this day.”
Due to historical tension between tribal, state, and federal agencies, a phenomena Miller-Tanner described as “gatekeeping,” grudges exist between investigating organizations, she said.
“I see gatekeeping as an issue,” Miller-Tanner said. “Not just on an individual level, but there are a lot of sore spots between investigators and researchers and tribal sovereignty, and I think a lot of the time people come at it from the political perspective versus what might be best on a case by case basis. There has to be a way to have meaningful dialogue about the issue on the federal, state, and tribal level with all parties accepting responsibility for the role in it.”
Lissa Yellow Bird-Chase, founder of the Sahnish Scouts of North Dakota, is a volunteer advocate for the missing. She’s searched for Native women, white men murdered in the Bakken oil fields, and frequently has to tangle with red tape and jurisdictional issues.
“They hide behind their veils of jurisdiction when it comes to sovereignty,” Yellow Bird-Chase said. “When Indigenous people are charged in criminal cases vs. when Indigenous people are victims, they readily grab on to jurisdictional denial saying tribes should provide.
“Mitz’s case is still alive,” Yellow Bird-Chase said. “Where is her justice?”
Last autumn the murder of Savanna Greywind, who was eight months pregnant at the time, prompted Senator Heidi Heitkamp to introduce Savanna’s Act, which aims to eliminate some of the red tape concerning Native crime issues. Among other aspects, the bill addresses the lack of data on missing and murdered Indigenous women and seeks to improve law enforcement protocols and collaboration between jurisdictions.
Although the bill would not be a panacea for all tribal, state, and federal jurisdictional issues, AMBER alerts pertaining to missing and abducted Native women and children would help law enforcement and Yellow Bird-Chase’s investigations, she said. The issues do not end there, however; change at a deeper level is needed by society as a whole, she said.
Anderson plans to ask for an interview with Critt, she said, after his trial for being charged with murdering Willcoxon.
Yellow Bird-Chase is still pursuing leads and re-interviewing people of interest, including the family who owns the cabin Eagleshield was last seen.
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