How Did Allison Highwolf Die? Distrust Fuels a Mystery in Indian Country.
NORTHERN CHEYENNE RESERVATION, Mont. — The knock on the door came at 3 a.m., when Pauline Highwolf opened it to see a police officer from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Don’t tell me,” she said, backing away.
The body of her 26-year-old daughter, Allison Highwolf, had been found alone in a motel room in Hardin, the officer said. It was February 2015, and Ms. Highwolf, who had been living in the motel with her boyfriend, had died of smoke inhalation from a fire of unclear origin.
The state medical examiner’s report said the manner of her death was undetermined, but suggested suicide. Ms. Highwolf’s family suspected foul play, given the strange circumstances. Ms. Highwolf had struggled with alcohol, her family members acknowledged, but she was a mother of four and they did not believe that she would take her own life.
The boyfriend told police he had returned to the motel that night to find the room filled with smoke and Ms. Highwolf’s body blocking the door.
Six years later, the circumstances of Ms. Highwolf’s death remain a mystery, one of many involving Native women who disappear or meet violent ends with alarming regularity. Her family and the local authorities agree that the case was shoddily handled and the initial investigation haphazard, as is often the case for Native Americans.
“They put her in the category of ‘just another drunken Indian,’” said one of Ms. Highwolf’s sisters, Rhea New Holy. “But she wasn’t.”
Today, under pressure from her family and an advocacy group in California, Ms. Highwolf’s case is under review. Pauline Highwolf is relieved it has been reopened, but she says a six-year effort to get there underscores the need for change in the way such cases are handled.
“We want to keep fighting, until we are heard,” she said. “And we want everyone who lost someone to keep fighting and know they’re not alone.”
In Montana, Native Americans, mostly young women, accounted for one-third of the 110 active missing persons cases in the missing persons’ clearinghouse at the end of 2019, according to a 2020 study by the state’s Justice Department. Big Horn County, where Ms. Highwolf’s body was found, and neighboring Rosebud County, home of the Northern Cheyenne reservation, lead the state for the number of missing people reported per capita. Last year, in the same town where Ms. Highwolf died, the body of Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, 18, who had been missing, was found in a backyard. Her case remains open.
Nationally, similar cases often linger unresolved for years. The authorities cite lack of evidence, lack of resources or confusion among Indian, local and federal jurisdictions. Victims’ families and their supporters blame discrimination, apathy and incompetence by law enforcement.
Underreporting and poor record-keeping obscure the dimensions of the problem, but data that does exist suggests the risk of rape or sexual assault is 2.5 times higher for Native women, and murder is their third leading cause of death, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.
“There’s a hesitancy within our communities to work with law enforcement because law enforcement doesn’t care about us,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee Nation member who is chief research officer at the Seattle Indian Health Board and directs the Urban Indian Health Institute.
The Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act, two bills signed in late 2020, proposed channeling more federal resources and attention to these cases, improving cross-jurisdictional enforcement and data collection. But putting the change into action has been slow, advocates say, despite stated support from President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo citizen who has made missing and murdered Indigenous women a policy priority.
Instead, a patchwork of committed people and groups helps families search for missing loved ones and plead for full investigations of unexplained deaths.
Mary Kathryn Nagle, a lawyer who represents pro bono the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, calls the effort “the most hopeless line of work you can do in America.”
“No one in a position of authority is going to help you,” said Ms. Nagle, who is a Cherokee Nation citizen. “I think a lot of families give up.”
Not the Highwolf family.
“I went on a rampage of anger,” Pauline Highwolf said. “I want to live to see justice for my baby.”
A Strange Fire
Pauline Highwolf described her daughter as her “miracle baby,” born amid complications mother and daughter both survived. Growing up, Allison Highwolf had an effervescent personality, her mother said, and worked sporadically at the Boys & Girls Club in Lame Deer. Sometimes she joined her mother at powwows.
“She was humble and loving,” Pauline Highwolf recalled. “And forgiving, no matter what anybody did to her. She would see people making fun of people with addictions on the street, and she would get mad and say, ‘Don’t laugh at them. Don’t make fun of them. What if it’s one of us?’ It made us think. It made everybody think.”
Allison Highwolf had the first of her four daughters, Rayven, while still in her teens. Three more daughters followed, but Ms. Highwolf’s connection to the girls’ two fathers soon frayed. The daughters now range in age from 8 to 15.
“I was digging through her stuff and the letters she would write to her babies, and I just sat here and cried,” Pauline Highwolf recalled. “She was a good mother, a good mama. She loved her kids so much. It was just her relationships that went bad.”
At the time of her death, Ms. Highwolf and her boyfriend were living at the Rodeway Inn in Hardin, in part because neither of their families approved of the relationship. The boyfriend, Stephen Auker, worked nights. Police said the fire in the motel room started sometime between his departure for work in the late afternoon and the time Ms. Highwolf was found dead, around midnight.
In a phone call, Mr. Auker responded by offering to connect The Times with his attorney, but he did not provide the attorney’s name or respond to subsequent efforts to reach him.
The county coroner did not allow Ms. Highwolf’s family to see her body, which was covered in soot. She was autopsied at the state medical examiner’s office in Billings. A few days later, a mortician delivered her body, dressed in a white lace blouse, pants and moccasins her family chose for her, to the front room of Pauline Highwolf’s single-story house on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, where most of her family still lives.
Mourners arrived at the house for her wake. Some brought earrings for Ms. Highwolf to wear. Ms. New Holy would play Dani and Lizzy’s “Dancing in the Sky,” a song about young, untimely death that Ms. Highwolf loved. But when the family opened the coffin, they gasped in horror.
Ms. Highwolf’s face looked injured, with a scuff on her cheek and a bulging bruise on her forehead. The family folded down her lace collar and pulled up her sleeves. Pauline Highwolf used her cellphone to photograph marks on her daughter’s face, neck, wrists and hands. Fears that she had been beaten or strangled tormented them.
A toxicology report had confirmed the presence of alcohol and methamphetamine in Ms. Highwolf’s blood. Her family did research on their own, unsure whether the levels were high enough to have rendered her unable to escape the smoke that filled the small motel room. Pauline Highwolf appealed to the police for information but was rebuffed.
“Just because your daughter died, the world doesn’t revolve around you,” she said one officer told her.
Efforts to pursue a wrongful-death lawsuit against the motel fizzled, Ms. New Holy said. Private investigators cost more than the family could afford.
By 2019, four years after Ms. Highwolf’s death, another sister, Kim Red Cherries, used Facebook to contact the Sovereign Bodies Institute, a nonprofit in California that helps Indigenous people who are the victims of sexual violence. Last month, after nearly two years of effort, Annita Lucchesi, the organization’s director, who had publicly declared Ms. Highwolf’s death a murder, arranged a meeting with the Montana state medical examiner and other authorities to begin a review of Ms. Highwolf’s case.
The nearly four-hour meeting, held late last month and described to The New York Times by participants, raised more questions.
Jay Harris, the Big Horn County Attorney, reviewed copies of police reports in the meeting, including one that said the police found an entry in a journal in the motel room that could be interpreted as a suicide note. It was the first time the family had heard of such a note, and Pauline Highwolf remains skeptical of it. She has since seen a photograph of it and said she was unsure whether the handwriting was her daughter’s.
Pauline Highwolf also strongly objected to a statement in the post-mortem report that her daughter had “a prior history of suicide attempts.” That was not the case, she said. Mr. Harris said the information came from a Big Horn County law enforcement officer on the night of Allison Highwolf’s death, but could not explain why the officer included it. The officer has since left the department, and did not respond to messages left on his cellphone.
The medical examiner, Dr. Robert Kurtzman, and a member of his staff who conducted Ms. Highwolf’s autopsy, reviewed the post-mortem report. They told Ms. Lucchesi, who represented the family in the meeting, that the marks that Ms. Highwolf’s family photographed on her face and neck did not appear in photos taken before her autopsy.
The funeral home’s “preparation of the decedent for the viewing was inadequate, and did not conceal common post-mortem artifacts which are commonly mistaken for traumatic injury,” Dr. Kurtzman, who reviewed the family’s photos, told The Times, recounting what he told Ms. Lucchesi in the meeting.
“There were no internal or external injuries indicative of strangulation,” he said. “The cause of death was clearly due to carbon monoxide intoxication, as a consequence of smoke and soot inhalation.”
Pauline Highwolf, the state medical examiner and the Big Horn County Attorney agree that there were substantial gaps in the initial investigation. Of three cellphones found in the motel room, the county lawyer and Ms. Lucchesi said information in the file suggests only one phone was searched. The motel surveillance video, though mentioned in the case file, is missing.
Without further answers, resolution remains elusive.
“I still feel they’re in the wrong, and committed a lot of violations that they’re not admitting,” Pauline Highwolf said of law enforcement.
She wants to participate in future case review meetings. The Big Horn County Attorney’s office expects that the review will not be completed until the fall.
In a statement on Friday, Mr. Harris said his office would oversee a re-review “to ensure that best efforts have been made to uncover any criminal activity associated with Highwolf’s death.”
“In addition to working with law enforcement investigators, my office is working with representatives of the family to conduct a full prosecutorial review of all evidence available,” the statement said. It concluded that “there is no statute of limitations in Montana for homicide, but time is always of the essence when the interests of justice and closure to family and loved ones is at stake.”
On one recent afternoon, Ms. Highwolf’s four daughters clustered around their grandmother’s kitchen table, making a decoration for their mother’s grave: a depiction of a red dress, a symbol of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement.
Ms. Highwolf is buried in a parched hilltop cemetery where several generations of her family lie, her grave strung with lights that her family can see from their front window at night.