Connie Walker vividly remembers the day she started to pitch a story about a missing indigenous woman to her boss at a national currents-affair show — a woman whose disappearance was garnering far less attention than that of a white woman in a similar situation. Walker had hardly started speaking when she says her editor held up a hand, cutting her off: “This isn’t another ‘poor Indian story,’ is it?” the editor asked.
“I think that that was the attitude for a really long time,” Walker tells Rolling Stone. “The reality was that for a really long time, there wasn’t any interest in our stories.”
Walker is now the host of Stolen: The Search for Jermain from Gimlet Media, and has been making podcasts about these women for years. A Cree from Saskatchewan, Canada, Walker grew up on a reserve, like many of her subjects, giving her intimate insight into the women whose stories she tells.
Season One of the show, 2016’s Missed & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? centered on the 1989 murder of a young indigenous woman in British Columbia. What was supposed to be a two-minute news piece ended up becoming an eight-part series delving into Williams’ life and those who knew her — including the man many people in her life believe killed her. Season Two, 2018’s Finding Cleo, followed Walker as she searched for Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, a young Cree girl who was taken from her family during the infamous Sixties Scoop, a three-decade era during which Canadian indigenous children were removed from their homes and put into the welfare system.
The current season of Walker’s show, the eight-part Stolen: The Search for Jermain, finds the podcaster digging into a more recent case: the 2018 disappearance of a young indigenous mother who went missing after leaving a bar in Missoula, Montana. That show had its finale on Monday. Through extensive interviews with family members, friends, and law enforcement, Walker takes us through the investigation into Jermain Charlo’s disappearance and possible theories about what happened to her. And as she does so, she throws into sharp relief the difficulties indigenous women face even today.
You’ve been reporting on these crimes throughout your career — most extensively at CBC. When did you decide you needed to tell these stories? Was it because of your own background?
Well, I’m indigenous; I’m Cree from Saskatchewan. I grew up on my reserve, and all my family still lives at home, except for me, basically. And I think I’ve always been interested in doing this kind of reporting, not specifically true-crime reporting but investigative reporting.
The reality was that for a really long time, there wasn’t any interest in our stories. And there wasn’t a recognition that these were important stories. I was a reporter who, occasionally, got to do stories about indigenous people and indigenous communities, which I obviously really care about. But then things changed. And 10 years after that experience [with the dismissive editor], I was part of a team [with CBC] that was dedicated to reporting on this issue, of violence against indigenous women and girls.
What kind of work did that team do?
We started with a database where we tried to compile as many unsolved cases as we could find in Canada. And we ended up publishing this website with more than 200 women’s names from across the country. I think our focus was, really, to try to get beyond the statistics and get beyond the violence that resulted in their deaths and disappearances, and really try to illustrate how every single one of them has a family, and a community, and a story that deserves to be told.
I can just picture this wall of women’s faces on the website. And then reading their stories, which were short, little anecdotes. And I remember the day that I sat down to work on a story and read through some of those bios. And I just remember feeling the weight like a ton of bricks … that so many people had been impacted by this kind of violence, that there were so many of the root causes that seem to be similar.
There’s so much about indigenous history that we are never taught in schools, and that we don’t understand. And what are we doing as journalists, and storytellers, if we’re not bringing those stories forward and helping people connect the dots and understand the truth about it? I think that was a big motivator for me.
How did you find the subjects for the podcast? Through the database?
The first season of Missing and Murdered was Who Killed Alberta Williams? Alberta Williams was in the database, and we had invited people to send us information, if they had information, about any of the women in the database. And we got an email one day, and the subject just said, “Alberta Williams’ murder.” And [the email] was just one sentence. And it said, “She was killed by her” and it named a person. She was killed by a person.
It was an odd email, [but] I responded. And this person obviously had some knowledge and information. And it turned out, it was the lead investigator in Alberta’s murder, who remembered her 27 years later and felt compelled to reach out and say what he had always thought about Alberta’s unsolved murder. And that was the beginning of the podcast. That was, actually, supposed to be a two-minute news story that turned into an eight-part podcast.
It sounds like you’ve, unlike a lot of podcasters, been able to solve the cases that you’ve been taking on — or at least move them forward. For instance, you were able to track down Cleo.
We didn’t know, for sure, what was going to happen with Cleo, in particular. Obviously, we had no expectations that we would be, four months later, at a police station, in New Jersey, reading through a police file that detailed Cleo’s death. But we had a feeling that we would be able to get some answers, right? Like there would be some record. Her family should be able to access some information about their sister.
What are your thoughts on true-crime podcasts?
I’m not a big consumer of true crime. I don’t, really, listen to a lot of true-crime podcasts, at least ones that focus on violence. I’m not interested in violence or consuming violence for entertainment. I think because of the work that I do, I actually, really actively avoid that.
I used to think that we were trying to subvert the popularity of true crime and tell a bigger story about indigenous people, and that that was a tool that we could use to try to get people to listen to our podcasts — people who didn’t think they cared about indigenous issues, or who didn’t think they had an interest, or who didn’t want to listen to a social-justice story. They might get drawn in by this mystery.
Then I realized, at a certain point, “I need this, too, actually.” That these stories are so important, and I’m so committed to telling them. I feel the responsibility to help tell them. But they’re so heavy. There’s so much pain and trauma that these families are experiencing. And knowing that Jermain is one of the hundreds, or thousands, of other indigenous women, and girls, whose stories deserve to be told, and whose families deserve justice — I need the investigative part of it as well. We can, hopefully, try to find some answers about Jermain, or about Cleo, or about Alberta. And hope that that leads to something positive for their families.
The context is really important, but also, Jermain’s family has been living in this agony of not knowing where she is. She just stopped responding to text messages and didn’t respond to emails. And immediately, they were like, “This is not like Jermain, something has happened.” To live without the answers for almost three years — it’s agonizing for them.
Did Jermain come from your work with the database as well? How did you get in contact with her family?
No, I left CBC at the end of 2019, and then I joined Gimlet. I moved to New York in January 2020, which was a really bad time to move. And now I’m back in Toronto. I think that when I started looking at cases in the U.S., I realized that even though I’m indigenous from Canada, there’s so much that I don’t understand about the American experience. And there’s such a diversity, in terms of indigenous nations, and Native Americans, and Alaskan Indian tribes, and communities across the country.
One of the first things I did was try to connect with people who are already doing this work in their communities. I think it’s very similar to what happened in Canada, in that it’s really indigenous women who are affected by this violence, who become advocates for themselves and for their families, and who are then doing the work of pushing the police, doing the work of pushing for change. I connected with some of them. I went to this conference in Tucson in January 2020, and it was focused on sex trafficking [which is] very linked to other kinds of violence. And I met so many of these women who were just so inspiring in the work that they’re doing. And one of them was Lauren Small Rodriguez, who was in the second episode of the podcast. And she told me about Jermain. And she suggested that I look into Jermain’s case.
It’s been months of getting to know Jermain’s family, and to be immersed in the details of her case, and to be, now, working on this podcast and story is really strange, in a way. For her family, this is not a story. This is their real life. This is something that they’re living every day. And it must be so strange to have it shared in that way.
I know reservations have different law enforcement separate from the rest of the state or town. Does that make your work difficult?
It’s interesting for me because I feel like I’m getting an education about all of the jurisdictional mazes that exist for indigenous people in the United States. But Jermain’s reservation, the Flathead Reservation, they have tribal police, but they also have county oversight. So the local counties are also working in collaboration with tribal law enforcement, and in Jermain’s case, as well. And Jermain’s case is also unique in that she’s a tribal member, she’s a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. And she was reported missing to tribal police by her mother. But she also was last seen in Missoula, so her family also reported her missing to the Missoula’s city police. I think, there are, actually, four or five different counties that have jurisdiction on the reservation. So depending on where you are on the reservation, a different sheriff’s office might respond to your call.
One of the things that we talk about in the first episode, was how it was so hard for her family to get her reported missing, and they had to navigate this jurisdictional maze to get police involved in investigating her disappearance. Now, those police forces have come up with a plan after Jermain’s case where you can report someone missing to any of them and they will share that information with each other.
[Jermain’s family] talks a lot about trying to make things better for other women. It’s too late to help Jermain, but what else can we do to help other women, especially women who’ve experienced intimate-partner violence? And that coordinated police response is one of them. And the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes are also coming up with this plan to respond to missing indigenous people. And I think they’re one of the first in the country to implement this plan.
It seems like this issue of violence against indigenous women, or girls, people are becoming more aware of it, and they’re starting to try to develop strategies to try to address it. And I think for Jermain, and for our podcast, I feel it’s about the awareness and it’s about people knowing who Jermain Charlo is. It’s two and a half years later, and her kids haven’t seen her, and her family is missing her and desperate for answers about where she is. Someone knows something about Jermain Charlo. And we’re really hoping that this podcast sheds light on her case, but also on her life. And helps people understand the realities that other indigenous women and girls experience in indigenous communities across the country.