Renee Sans Souci held her medicine pipe close to her that night and prayed.
Her four children lay sleeping nearby in the Omaha motel room.
A few hours before, the Omaha Native woman had fled the home she shared with her four children, mother, brother and nieces and nephews. Now she and her children had nowhere to go and no money.
She began questioning whether their lives were worth living.
“That was one of the hardest nights I ever experienced,” the 57-year-old poet and activist told a gathering of more than 30 people at the Indian Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Saturday night.
They had fled Sans Souci's abusive brother, who had once again lost his temper and began screaming at her children for not sharing a toy with his own children. Sans Souci had decided it was time to leave, again.
She shared her story at a vigil held to honor her 29-year-old niece, Ashlea Aldrich, whose body was found in a field last week on her northeast Nebraska reservation.
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, Sans Souci said.
Tribal and federal authorities are investigating Aldrich’s death.
In a post on social media, Aldrich's mother blamed the death on domestic violence, an act committed by someone known to the family and to local law enforcement.
In a later 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.”
As of Monday, a GoFundMe set up by Alyssa Aldrich for her family and her sister’s two sons had raised nearly $5,000.
Candlelight vigils were held in Macy, Nebraska, and Lincoln last week, and Aldrich’s funeral was held Saturday in Macy.
In a press release, the Omaha Tribal Council expressed grief and condolences to Aldrich’s family.
"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."
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.
At Saturday night’s vigil in Lincoln, nearly a dozen women and men shared stories of abuse and tears and expressed hope that steps might be taken to end the violence committed against Native women.
Three red dresses hung above the circle of people, and seven red, wooden figures of women with feathers in their hair rested on a table nearby.
A woman named Natalie shared her story of being sexually assaulted by someone she thought was a friend. She said people who are abused are often good at hiding their bruises and scars.
“When they do turn for help, nobody believes them,” she said.
Winnebago activist Michelle Free-LaMere said it is important to provide training to women.
“We’re going to have to have those self-defense classes, those situational awareness classes,” she said.
Colette Yellow Robe, chairwoman of the Native American Women’s Nebraska Task Force, said it also is important that Native people stop blaming victims of domestic violence, something she has already seen some people do to Ashlea Aldrich.
“We can’t do that anymore,” Yellow Robe said. “Those days are done.”
Elizabeth Weidner, missing and murdered indigenous women coordinator for the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, shared her own story of abuse.
She said a former boyfriend once threatened to kill himself in front of her using her own gun.
She got a protection order against him, which he violated, leading to his arrest and imprisonment.
Weidner said she decided to leave and attend law school. She is now a second-year law student and is working to get policies in place to prevent the murder and abuse of Native women.
She said she is currently trying to gather accurate data about how many Native women are missing in Nebraska. She asked those gathered at Saturday’s vigil to let her know if they knew of any missing women who haven’t been reported to the police.
“If anyone knows someone who is missing and a report wasn’t filed or police didn’t care, let me know,” she said. “I want everyone to be accounted for.”
Sans Souci said it’s important to understand that even when people seem respectable and kind, they still may be hiding a violent side.
She said the night she fled her home that she shared with her brother and mother she had come home to find her two boys running from the house.
Sans Souci went inside the house to find her brother, still fuming.
“You have not taught them anything!” he yelled at her. “They don’t share.”
He told her that her boys refused to share a toy with his own children. He attacked her spiritual beliefs, saying she was a hypocrite for not teaching her children to share.
It wasn’t the first time her brother had lost his temper, but this time, he had gone too far, Sans Souci said. With her children crying, she decided she had to leave.
She loaded up her children, and drove to Omaha. With very little money and no place else to go, Sans Souci prayed that night. And she began to despair.
She asked her creator why no one wanted her or her children and began to question whether it might be better if they were all dead.
Her 10-year-old daughter heard her praying and chastised her mother.
“Mom, please don’t think that way,” she said.
As dawn finally broke after that long night, Sans Souci began trying to think of where she and her children might go. She decided to take them to a sundance.
She spent the next day preparing for the ceremony and the two days after that sundancing.
“I prayed for my kids, and I prayed for a home,” she said.
When she was finished, a niece who lived in Lincoln offered to let her and her kids stay with her for three weeks until they were able to get housing.
She said she hasn’t spoken to her brother for a long time but has found peace now that she and her children have their own home and don’t have to fear angering him.
“Now I can let it go,” she said. “Now my healing begins.”
Omaha Tribe and Ashlea Aldrich
In addition to issuing statements about the death of Ashlea Aldrich, the Omaha Tribe offered counseling and participated in vigils over the last week.
Today, we filled with grief as a community. When our community hurts, we all hurt. May Wakonda give strength in this...