FARGO — On the area’s fifth recognized Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Awareness Day, Shayne Cook, a registered member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, came close to tears while describing how his niece was killed.
“My niece was born with an absent father, and in our culture it’s all about kinship, so I stepped in as father,” Cook said. “She loved being a little girl, being a little princess.”
Aleeya Mya Cook was nine days past her second birthday in 2012 when her biological father, Mario Contreras, punched her 19 times in the head, killing her.
Cook and his youngest sister, Shannon Marie Cook-Sine, who was also the child’s mother, struggled through years of a disbelieving community, half bent on saying the child’s killer was innocent, half demanding justice. Contreras wasn’t arrested for nearly a year after the girl's death.
Family waited another year for the trial, which found Contreras guilty, and then waited another year for the 60-year sentence that was eventually handed down, Cook said.
At the time, some friends and neighbors — including former Tribal Chairman Robert Shepherd — believed Contreras, who was the chief safety officer at Indian Health Services, was a “positive role model for the community,” according to a letter written by Shepherd on Aug. 20, 2012.
“I was requested to provide a letter of character for Mario Michael Contreras, which I agreed wholeheartedly to do because I have known Mario personally for over 20 years,” Shepherd wrote. He later said the letter wasn’t the best decision he ever made, according to the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“For eight months, he walked around free. He denied he had anything to do with it,” Cook said of Contreras. “It was rage. He flew into a fit of rage, but we had to stay calm, and wait for the system to work, and the system did work, but the patience...”
The death of her daughter and the conflict that followed slowly took its toll on Cook-Sine, an Iraq War veteran and recipient of multiple awards for her service, according to her obituary.
“She was our Captain America,” Cook said.
For more on the MMIW crisis, read The Forum’s recent series:
- Part 3: Crisis of missing Indigenous people sparks activists, self-taught searchers to help families awaiting answers
In March 2019, Cook-Sine died from cancer after choosing not to receive treatment, he said.
“It was a horrible, horrible thing. She had a hard time without her daughter, without her princess, and now she’s with her in the sky,” Cook said.
Remembering the missing and murdered indigenous men, women and children is important to Cook. In 2012, when his niece was viciously murdered, he didn’t know where to go for help.
“I had to leave it in the hands of the creator,” Cook said. “The whole community has a lot of backlash, and it was very, very difficult to grieve and to heal. Now that it has all subsided, I’m still healing.”
Words were difficult for Cook to find as it was the second time he has ever talked openly about his experience. He’s found strength in the annual MMIW marches, and he’s also found a community for help, something he didn’t have before.
“Now, people stand together in solidarity, to stand behind victims and families of victims,” Cook said. “There has been too much judgment... people would do so much better with more love, compassion and respect, isn’t that right?”
While Feb. 14 is traditionally a holiday for high school sweethearts, candies and chocolates, Amanda Vivier, chairperson of the MMIW FM Area Task Force, led nearly 250 people in the fourth annual march by dancing — nonstop — through 10 blocks of downtown Fargo.
She sang and hopped while others followed. Some women and girls had the red hand symbol painted over their mouths. Nearly everyone wore red, and many were smudged before leaving Fargo's Plains Art Museum, where the march started.
Vivier is also looking for grant writers to help procure finances to establish a MMIW center and shelter, she said.
“It’s good to get together so we can get stories out there,” Vivier said. “If we can get people comfortable with truth-telling, we can find out the whys.”
She said that includes questions about why Native women are murdered at 10 times the national average, but there's more. Why have 84% of Native women experienced violence in their lifetimes? Why are 125 Native women reported missing in North Dakota by the National Crime Information Center? The total number of missing Native women is most likely much higher, the MMIW FM Area Task Force reported, as many cases go unreported.
Martin Avery represented the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition during the march around downtown on Friday as the temperature was zero degrees with wind gusts up to 35 mph.
“I think this is something underground for so long and just now has started to come into the normal person’s consciousness,” Avery said. “It’s good that we’re including more voices so we can reach the community.”
Before the march began, JT Shiningone Side of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa prayed.
“We stand here on behalf of the murdered and missing women, men, boys, girls, help us to walk and have good things in our minds,” Shiningone Side said. “Help us to remember that there are many out there that maybe have not been found.”