Lynnette Grey Bull (l) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)
Lynnette Grey Bull is founder and director of Not Our Native Daughters, a nonprofit created to educate and raise awareness of the missing, exploited, and murdered Indigenous women and children in the more than 300 tribes across the U.S.
Grey Bull was raised in Pasadena, CA, where her parents, who met in college, had settled after leaving Billings, Montana.
“I had great memories there,” she recalls. Her mother is Northern Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and her father is Hunkpapa/Dakota from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.
But her parents had different memories, including her father’s experience of being relocated to an American Indian boarding school.
“Although they did well for themselves, they didn’t address their traumas,” Grey Bull explains. “Both turned to alcoholism, and at age 17, I was homeless.”
Grey Bull spent years in therapy and counseling to address her own traumas, handed down from her parents and grandparents and which they had never addressed. “I was determined to break this cycle for myself, my children, and for young women,” she says.
After a move to Arizona in 2006 with three children and a broken marriage, she learned about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study) in her volunteer work. The ACE Study tied 10 types of childhood trauma, such as living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or is depressed, to chronic disease in adulthood. It and subsequent research also showed links between childhood trauma and alcohol and drug abuse in adulthood. Participating in United Way for homeless outreach and volunteering in organizations to prevent human trafficking as well as domestic violence, Grey Bull started to incorporate ACEs and resiliency testing into her work.
Her reaction to first learning about ACEs, she said, was “fascinating. I love engaging in oneself. I was impressed.”
At the same time, “I realized that Native American women have the worst statistics when it comes to violence, and our children have the worst statistics when it comes to trauma.” Even worse, she says, is the lack of focus on these issues by large organizations and our nation’s society.
Although there are 574 different Indigenous tribes in the U.S., and domestic violence is 50 times higher than the national average among this population, only 58 of these tribes have domestic violence shelters. According to a recent report from the CDC, murder is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous females aged 19 and younger, and Native American women are 10 times more likely to be killed than White women.
Many reasons contribute to these numbers, says Grey Bull, but the most dominant cause is discrimination: “Native Americans have never been deemed important. There is not the same amount of attention, resources, and health care given to our tribal communities.”
Historical trauma is another big factor leading to violence. “My people have had a hard time coming to a place of healing,” she says. “The more we educate, the more it creates a step forward to healing the broken areas.”
Active in Amber Alert in Native American counties, Grey Bull was appointed chair of the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs at the Governor’s Office in 2014 to 2016.
Returning to her family roots
In 2013 Grey Bull started an organization, Not Our Native Daughters (NOND) on her own dime, with small donations from supporters. NOND’s mission is “to end the trafficking, exploitation, and murder of indigenous persons through education, policy change, coalition-building, and strengthening Indigenous capacities to address endemic violence.”
In 2017, Grey Bull decided to move to her tribal home, the Wyoming Wind River Reservation.
“I did it with no money,” she says. “I was doing outreach, getting donations from my church. I started delivering to different reservations for a while. People were asking me to come speak, so I spoke at different conferences, victim services, welfare conferences. One speaking engagement created five more for me.” Greybull also uses Native American art and her own photography as well as statistics to get her message across on social media.
Fast-forward to the Biden administration, which appointed the first Native American presidential cabinet member—U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a good friend of Grey Bull, who has met with her several times. This past April, Haaland formed a Missing & Murdered Unit within the bureau.
Since its founding, NOND has provided training sessions—in trauma and data—to more than 7,000 participants in 50 tribes. Sessions are online and last from six to eight hours. Some trainings address trauma and incorporate ACEs, but most, says Grey Bull, include training on collecting data and collaborating with researchers, legislators, and law enforcement to enact policy change.
Becoming a policy leader
In recognition of her leadership role through NOND, Grey Bull was appointed in 2019 to the Wyoming Governor’s Task Force for Missing, Murdered Indigenous Persons and the Wyoming Human Trafficking Task Force. A report the task force issued in 2021 found that media coverage of missing and murdered Native American people was substantially less than for White people. Most striking was the comparison between articles about missing White people who were found alive and Indian people: 23 percent versus zero.
In 2020, the Native American advocate took a bigger step. She was nominated by her state’s Democratic party to run for Congress against Republican Lynn Cheney. Although she lost, she said she was proud to be the first Native American to run for federal office in her state.
Although Grey Bull’s college plans to study nursing and business management were stalled when she got married and had children, she plans to complete her studies someday. She might even run for Congress again, a decision she’s putting off for another month.
By providing help to her parents as they aged and grew ill, she was able to help them with their healing. “My dad did understand the trauma he suffered and was able to come to a place of really understanding it and how that past was a cloud over him,” she says, “a cloud he didn’t want to think about.”
As for her own children, two in public schools and one in college, she says proudly, “I raised advocates. They see me speak and train. They can recite statistics. We have healthy language in our household; they understand what misplaced anger is. They also understand what trauma is.”
As the advocate strives for equity in Native American issues, she affirms that she has dedicated her life to change the harsh data that plague Native American women and children.