Courtesy Daunnette Reyome

High School Cheerleaders Rally Against Violence Against Indigenous Women

'My aunt means more to me than a cheer uniform and pom-poms ever will'

Ashlea Aldrich was about love “no matter what,” her mother, Tillie Aldrich, told MTV News. “She was so loving and caring. She always saw the bright side of everything.”

A graduate of Omaha Nation Public School in Macy, Nebraska, the 29-year-old earned a certification in cosmetology and devoted most of her time to her two sons. “She was a laid-back person, always giving, and so forgiving,” Tille remembered. Yet while Aldrich had her family’s support in raising her boys, her mother also remembered a pattern of domestic violence — and that Ashlea felt like she had no support from law enforcement when trying to protect herself.

According to Indianz.com, Aldrich and her family had reported concerns about domestic violence to Ohama Tribal elders before her death; she was among the 84 percent of Indigenous women who have been subjected to violence in their lifetimes. “I wrote a letter to the Omaha Tribal Council in 2017 because I was just fed up,” Tillie said. “And in that letter I said my daughter's going to end up getting hurt and possibly be killed. And that's exactly what happened.”

Aldrich was murdered on January 5, according to reports; her sister found her abandoned body two days later on the Omaha reservation in Nebraska, NBC News affiliate KTIV reported. Her death left two boys without a mother and a family seeking justice. Per KTIV, the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska issued a statement saying, “Ashlea was so sweet and kind and always had a warm, welcoming attitude. On behalf of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, we are sending our greatest sympathies and condolences to the family of Ashlea and all affected by her passing.”

The murder is currently being investigated by tribal authorities and the FBI, and Omaha women have since gathered to memorialize her and share their own stories of domestic violence, and Aldrich’s sister Alyssa has since set up a GoFundMe to support their family. Their niece, Daunette Moniz-Reyome, also wanted to make sure people knew what happened to her aunt — and that tragically, hers isn’t an isolated story.

“After her funeral, I told myself I would take every opportunity to help tell her story and keep her memory alive,” the 17-year-old, who is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and lives on the Omaha Reservation, told MTV News. “Too many times our Indigenous women are forgotten after they’re laid to rest, and I made a promise that would not happen to my aunt.”

So she got to work  with the other members of her cheerleading squad at Walthill Public School, which Aldrich attended for a few years. The group made posters of Aldrich with her family, and painted red handprints over their mouths ahead of a basketball game in order to raise awareness of the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). They’re not the only athletes to do so in recent months. In May 2019, Cowlitz Indian Tribe member Rosalie Fish competed at a Washington state track meet with a red handprint across her mouth; Kyal Shoulderblade-Sampson, a member of the Yakama Nation, and Nick Wakos, a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation in Canada, wore black handprints on their faces in the Indigenous Bowl football game the following month. And on January 22, the Parshall High School girls basketball team in Trenton, North Dakota, debuted red hands over their mouths in a photo they posted ahead of a game; the girls were not allowed to wear the paint during the game, their coach told local Fox affiliate KFYR.

Daunnette told MTV News she spoke with the school’s superintendent a week prior to the basketball game against Wynot Public School on Tuesday (January 28); she said that while he was supportive at first, school officials later changed their minds. “That upset me, but it wasn’t going to stop me,” she said, adding that she and her co-captain “decided we wouldn’t allow anyone to be the hand that silences us, no matter the consequences. You’re going to listen to our message.”

In photos Daunnette later posted to Instagram, her cheer squad stands on the sidelines of the basketball court, red handprints across their mouths. At one point, they took to the center of the court to display their posters of Aldrich and her sons. “The audience applauded us when we finished,” she said. “The cheer coach approached us when we were done and told us to leave the floor, get ourselves together, and wash our faces because we were sobbing. The moment so powerful that it brought tears to our eyes. Our coach told us it was a personal moment and we needed to have it off the floor.”

While the elder Aldrich hasn’t been very social in the past few weeks, she made sure to be in the stands for Daunnette’s tribute. “We got there just before halftime — it took my breath away and just made me so empowered just to see her,” she said. “It was just a silent prayer and they had the pictures and a song. They showed her pictures and then they gave the pictures to us. And my grandson just hugged a picture and sat there for a few minutes just saying, ‘My mama, my mama.’ It brought tears not only to my eyes, but to everybody in the gym.”

While Daunnette says her classmates were supportive of the tribute, it’s not likely that the Walthill cheerleaders will be able to stage another one in their official capacity as a squad this year. The next day, the school canceled the rest of the cheer season, citing a contract violation. “I don’t believe our season being cancelled had anything to do with a contract violation,” Daunnette explained. “It’s an excuse so they can try to avoid community backlash.”

When reached for comment by MTV News, Walthill Public School superintendent Kirk Ahrends confirmed the squad’s season had been cancelled, but disputed claims that it was linked to the tribute. “It is true that the cheerleaders will not be participating in the two remaining home basketball games,” he said in an email statement. “This decision was based on the students’ failure to abide by team rules, entirely unrelated in any way to the domestic abuse awareness campaign.” He said that “the school district has not taken any action against anyone for activities related to a memorial that was initiated by patrons and neither sponsored nor approved by the district,” and added that the school made “special efforts to allow a Cedar Ceremony of Healing at the game to recognize these important and unique community circumstances.”

Daunnette told MTV News she believes the school’s reaction was “understandable,” even though she doesn’t agree it was “right or fair.” She said, “We did something we were told not to do and we will accept the consequences to our actions. But my aunt means more to me than a cheer uniform and pom-poms ever will. We did what we did with good intentions and with no regrets. I’ll save my cheer energy for the day my aunt gets justice for her life being stolen from her.”

Other schools have also reached out to the Aldrich family for their blessing to pay tribute to Ashlea, Tillie said. “It's so overwhelming because there have been so many people, not just here in Nebraska, not as just an Indian country, but nationwide, who have reached out. And we’ve agreed, because my baby was ignored long enough, and she's not here anymore because of that negligence.”

According to a 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute, there were 5,712 reports of missing Native American and Alaskan Native women in 2016, but only 116 of them were officially logged into a Department of Justice database. Murder is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women; in some counties, Indigenous women face murder rates ten times higher than the national average. Activists and politicians alike have spent years calling for greater protections for Indigenous women, who are often denied justice due to jurisdictional stalemates between tribal and federal agencies, as well as a perceived apathy by law enforcement. Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM), who is Laguna Pueblo, is helping lead the charge in Congress to ensure that the Violence Against Women Act better protects Native women; the bill and others like it have been stalled by politicians like Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and former Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA).

“We need to ensure that tribal police have the resources and the training they need, that the FBI is caring about these crimes, that we can share enough data,” Haaland told MTV News in November, adding that, while it breaks her heart that young people are getting involved, their advocacy makes her hopeful that change is on the way. “In order to ensure that the public cares about an issue, the more we need to get it out there because if people don't know to care about this issue, they're not going to care about it,” she said.

Tillie Aldrich also hopes law enforcement and tribal codes improve so that everyone feels protected, no matter their circumstance. “We have to take care of each other across the board and be fair,” she said. “I think that's what Daunnette stands for, that fairness and trying to bring that awareness and not letting others be ashamed or keep quiet. You can make noise without saying a word, and I think that's what she did that night.”

For her part, Daunnette is focusing on supporting her family and helping further raise community awareness around the unique issues and inequities that Indigenous people face. “My dad and I are planning to organize a unity walk to bring awareness to  domestic violence, suicide prevention, and mental health issues — we need to heal as a community, and as individuals,” she explained, calling on the Iroquois tradition of the Great Peacemaker to illustrate her point. “The Great Peacemaker took one arrow and broke it into five pieces and tied them together into a bundle, which was difficult, if not impossible to break,” she said. “That symbol was used to show the people there is strength in unity.”

“For so long, Native voices were always silenced,” Daunnette added. “I hope we can create or change laws that can help protect our women, find them sooner, and provide justice to families who have lost their loved ones.”