Daughter Of Wyoming Tribal Murder Victim Says Justice Goes Beyond A Conviction

The daughter of a Wind River Reservation man murdered in Lander, Wyoming, in April questions what it means to get justice for her father and others. One thing she does know: It’s goes far beyond a court conviction.

Jen Kocher

June 02, 20246 min read

Cassandra Burson says she's not sure what justice for her murdered father looks like, but that a court conviction likely will fall far short.
Cassandra Burson says she's not sure what justice for her murdered father looks like, but that a court conviction likely will fall far short. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Cassandra Burson grapples with the meaning of justice. She questions what it truly means to achieve it, especially in light of the tragic murder of her father, 57-year-old Warren Jorgenson, in Lander back in April.

Although the accused perpetrator is in custody awaiting trial, Burson can't help but wonder if a conviction alone constitutes justice. To her, a conviction changes nothing. Her father is still dead and the conditions that lead to humans harming one another are still there.

In Burson's view, the answer to what true justice would look like lies in the deep-seated problems plaguing Native American communities such as colonization and colonial trauma, which she believes are the driving forces behind the disproportionately high rates of homicide and missing persons cases on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation and elsewhere.

Until these factors are addressed, the soaring homicide and missing person rates will continue, she said.

The numbers underscore the reality of the epidemic of violence plaguing the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribal communities.

The average homicide rate for Indigenous people in Wyoming continues to be significantly higher than the rate for white people, despite comprising 3% of the state’s population.

According to a 2024 report by the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center (WYSAC) at the University of Wyoming, the homicide rate for Indigenous people was 19.6 per 100,000 in 2023. This is nearly seven times higher than the murder rate of white people, as stated in the report.

Fremont County, which includes the reservation, in particular has a high number of homicides, far exceeding the average rate. This year alone, there have been six reported homicides in the county, making up almost a third of the total recorded for the entire state.

No Easy Fix

A significant disparity in homicide rates also exists between Indigenous and Caucasian males.

In 2023, the homicide rate for Indigenous males was 28.8 per 100,000, while for Caucasians it was 3.7 per 100,000, according to the same report. Homicides among Native American women were similarly high at 10 per 100,000 people compared to 2.2 per 100, 000 for white women.

The number of homicides may be higher than recorded for Indigenous people, said Lena Dechert, assistant research scientist at WYSAC. That’s because some homicides may be mischaracterized as accidental or suicide on death certificates.

Indigenous people also accounted for 18% of all missing person cases in Wyoming last year with 110 people reported missing from Fremont, Laramie, Natrona, Carbon, Campbell and Albany counties.

This is the fourth year Gov. Mark Gordon’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force has commissioned the report in an attempt to help tackle the problem.

And while its role is to collect the data, ultimately, all the solutions and recommendations for addressing the issue need to come from tribal leaders, families and grassroots organizers who are directly impacted by the violence, Dechert said.

“There is no easy fix or recommendation,” said Emily Grant, senior research scientist at WYSAC. “This is an issue that has been building for hundreds of years and it’s going to take some time to work on prevention, restoring and healing.”

This requires that many groups do their parts, including law enforcement, the judicial system among others and those like Burson, who are working hard to prevent violence and help repair fissures within the culture, Grant said.

Root causes

Burson, who works as a prevention specialist at the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, also is a member of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Wind River. She believes that the solutions to combatting violence happen through centering indigenous ways of life, culture, language and being in the right relationship with mother earth.

“That we are led and guided by values that are accountable to our human and non-human relatives of the natural world, as opposed to being guided by the values of capitalism and consumerism,” she said. “We need to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations of the history of colonization and how it continues to show up today through harmful social and societal norms, oppressive systems and structures that we participate in, are complicit to and continue to uphold.”

She further believes that ending violence requires understanding the root causes that underscore various forms of oppression, including racism, classism, sexism, capitalism among other “isms.”

“In prevention it is said we can’t end one form of violence without ending all forms of violence,” she said.

She said his includes environmental violence, referencing a 2016 report from the Women's Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network titled "Violence on the Land, Violence on our Bodies," which highlights the connection of the environmental impact of the extractive oil and coal industries to the violence being perpetrated against women and children.

“When we heal the land, we heal our bodies,” she said.

Return To Community

Capitalism also has an impact on culture.

In a capitalistic world, people learn to live and think as individuals vying against one another, Burson explained. In this world, people are told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps as opposed to seeing the world through the lens of community in which people are taking care of one another.

“It's that individualistic way of looking at things that position us against each other, without thinking about our relationships and responsibility to each other and to Mother Earth. We’re being guided by the wrong values, which is further oppressing us,” she said.

She believes that the solutions to preventing violence are inherent in their language and stories and the ancestral wisdom that dictates both their relationship with the natural world and to each other.

“As we move forward in creating changes and making the world safe, without violence, we need to be guided by these values first,” she said. “Our responsibility needs to be to each other, and making sure that we’re accountable and everyone is taken care of and it's not done out of competition, but out of genuine love for each other.”

This also means taking care of one another, she added.

“We need to ask who’s not at the table and who's not being represented?” she said. “Those are our relatives who are most in need that need to be centered.”

Ultimately, the solutions rest in restoring their culture, she added, and practicing consent and reciprocity on a daily basis in tune with mother earth and nature.

Burson admitted these are very difficult conversations to have, but she’s not going to stop pushing for the Indigenous worldview.

“Some will tell you to just accept the Western worldview or the colonial settler project as a way of life, that it’s just the way it is,” she said. “I refuse to accept this way of life.”

Jen Kocher can be reached at jen@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Jen Kocher

Features, Investigative Reporter