A photo shared on GoFundMe shows Ashlea Aldrich’s family making preparations for her funeral. "This photo is so hard to share," Ashlea's sister wrote on the fundaising site. "My parents making funeral arrangements for my baby sister Ashlea. Never in a million years would I have thought we would be sitting, picking out a casket color......our hearts are so broken...."
The aunt of a 29-year-old Omaha Native woman whose body was found in a field on her reservation this week said Ashlea Aldrich’s gruesome death demonstrates the need for swift and aggressive action by tribal leaders to combat domestic violence.
Renee Sans Souci, a 57-year-old Omaha poet, activist and mother, said Aldrich and her family had expressed concerns about domestic violence to Omaha tribal leaders before her death. But tribal leaders failed to take meaningful action on those concerns, she said.
“This is one of the most heartbreaking issues to come to our people,” she said. “It speaks volumes about the current situation my tribe is facing when it deals with domestic violence.”
Tribal and federal authorities are investigating Aldrich’s death.
According to news reports, the mother of two was found in a field on the Omaha Tribe’s reservation in northeast Nebraska earlier this week. In a post on social media, the victim's mother blamed the death on domestic violence, an act committed by someone known to the family and to local law enforcement.
"He beat my daughter and left her in a field!! ... dead!" Tillie Aldrich wrote on Tuesday. Her heartbreaking post contains photos of the site where Ashlea's body was found.
In a Wednesday post on Facebook, Alyssa Aldrich described finding her sister’s lifeless and naked body in a field near a creek. She said she laid her coat over her sister’s body and began calling for help.
“My heart is broken for her beautiful baby boys! She loved them and would do anything for them!” Alyssa Aldrich wrote. “I want Justice for Ashlea.”
A GoFundMe set up by Alyssa Aldrich for her family and her sister’s two sons had raised more than $3,200 as of early Friday afternoon.
Women on the reservation held a candlelight vigil in memory of Aldrich on Tuesday night. Another vigil was held in Lincoln on Wednesday night. And another vigil is planned for Saturday night at the Lincoln Indian Center.
Colette Yellow Robe, chairwoman of the Native American Women’s Nebraska Task Force, said Aldrich’s death raises serious concerns about how tribal officials are addressing domestic violence situations and missing persons. She said she also fears tribal departments, including police and courts, are failing to communicate with each other about domestic violence cases.
And she worries too much focus has been placed on blaming victims of domestic violence, rather than holding accountable the perpetrators of that violence.
“This sounds like a history of victim blaming, which in 2020 is absolutely unacceptable,” she said.
She said Omaha tribal leaders should consider overhauling their domestic violence policies and seeking funding for domestic violence programs and women’s shelters.
“I believe it’s going to have to start with the tribal leadership making a statement and making a stand,” she said.
The Omaha Tribe discussed the tragedy in a post on its Facebook page on Tuesday. A statement was also issued to the media by the tribal council.
"The Omaha Tribe has suffered a tragic loss on the Omaha Reservation. We are so saddened to hear the passing of Ashlea Aldrich, an Omaha Tribal member and previous employee of Omaha Tribe," the statement read. "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."
"At this time, there is no further comment from the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, because of the ongoing investigation," the council said. "We are working diligently to see that crisis counseling is available for our community."
Yellow Robe said she hopes the tribe’s response to the incident won’t become muddled by political concerns. Ashlea Aldrich’s death shouldn’t be treated as anything other than an act of pure evil and any response to it should be framed as such, Yellow Robe said.
“She was beaten, tortured, stripped naked, humiliated and died,” she said. “You just can’t fathom it. It’s demonic. It’s evil.”
Today, we filled with grief as a community. When our community hurts, we all
hurt. May Wakonda give strength in this...
Sans Souci said she first learned of her niece’s death Tuesday evening after seeing social media posts about a young woman’s body being found on the Omaha reservation. After contacting her brother, she learned the victim was their niece.
She said she didn’t know Ashlea Aldrich very well, as Sans Souci has lived away from her reservation for many years and doesn’t know very well many of the younger members of her extended family.
But she said her niece was beloved by her family and her loss will be felt for many years to come.
“This has got to be the most horrible feeling a parent could experience,” Sans Souci said.
She said Aldrich’s funeral is planned for Saturday in Macy, Nebraska.
In Nebraska, state leaders took steps last year to address the spate of missing and murdered indigenous women affecting their state and country. The state’s Legislature passed a bill that requires the Nebraska State Patrol to study ways to improve the gathering of data related to missing Native women in Nebraska and a legislative task force was established to ensure the bill is implemented properly.
Rallies, conferences and new funding for domestic violence programs to tribes, including funds for the Ponca and Winnebago tribes, have also provided hope that meaningful steps are being taken to reduce the number of Native women who are murdered or disappear each year, Sans Souci said.
“We’re considered an invisible people,” she said. “It’s not so. We’re strong. We’re resilient. We’re still here.”
She said it will be vital for Native people to take an honest look at how they treat domestic violence victims.
“They’re punishing us, especially the females,” she said. “If you’re treated like that, you’re not going to share anything else that happened.”
As a sexual assault survivor herself, Sans Souci said she can still feel her male relative’s hands holding her wrists as he attempted to assault her. She was only 12 years old when it happened and she was able to fight him off, but to this day, she gets defensive when anybody walks up behind her unnoticed.
She said Native men need to begin to address their own addictions and behaviors.
“We want our men to take responsibility for their healing, to heal and then step up,” she said.