From Silence to Science: Haley Omeasoo’s New Forensic Laboratory Aims to Combat the MMIP Crisis

Today’s guest blog is written and condensed by Tara Luther, Promega. Reposted from the ISHI Report with permission.

In the heart of the movement to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) crisis, Haley Omeasoo stands as a beacon of hope and change. With a unique blend of personal heritage from the Blackfeet and Hopi tribes, and a professional background in forensics, Haley’s journey is both deeply personal and profoundly impactful. Witnessing first-hand the disparities in how Indigenous cases are treated compared to non-Indigenous ones, she founded Ohkomi Forensics. This initiative aims to use forensic science as a voice for those silenced, leveraging her expertise to shine a light on unresolved cases and provide solace to grieving families. Through Ohkomi Forensics, Haley embodies the mission to search, identify, and rematriate, striving to restore balance and justice for Indigenous communities across the nation.


In this interview, Haley shares her insights, experiences, and the profound impact of her efforts to bridge forensic science and indigenous advocacy, offering a compelling narrative of resilience, hope, and the relentless pursuit of justice for the missing and murdered Indigenous persons.



Can you share with us how your personal and professional background led you to focus on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons crisis, particularly your connection to the Blackfeet and Hopi tribes?

Growing up on the Blackfeet reservation and being an enrolled member of the Hopi tribe, I witnessed the violence against Indigenous people throughout the years, and how the cases of Indigenous people were not always handled in the same way as non-Indigenous cases. There aren’t many alternative resources out there that provide forensic services to Indigenous communities, and when our people go missing, they are often not given the media attention they should be. Being one of the only Indigenous graduate students in the forensics program at [the University of Montana], I found it essential to pursue this issue and explore the different ways I can use this accumulated knowledge into helping my community. There are several ongoing missing persons cases, as well as possible homicide cases that have yet to be solved, that I plan on using my expertise to assist on, with hopes of providing some answers to the families of MMIP.


What inspired you to establish Ohkomi Forensics, and what does the name “Ohkomi” signify in this context?

“Ohkomi” in Niitsiipowah’sin (“The Real Language”/Blackfeet Language) means “to use one’s voice”. That’s exactly what I plan to do with Ohkomi Forensics. Use my voice for those that can no longer speak for themselves. There are way too many missing and murdered loved ones in our community, and not enough resources and assistance that are being provided. Therefore, Ohkomi Forensics will be a resource to law enforcement and the families of MMIP that will provide forensic services and knowledge in these types of situations, to help alleviate the issue at hand.



How does your work at Ohkomi Forensics differ from traditional approaches to forensic investigations, especially in cases involving Indigenous communities?

Cases involving Indigenous communities are often handled very differently than non-Indigenous cases, in the sense that they go through a different chain of custody. Often times, there can be a lot of miscommunications (or lack thereof) between agencies and the families, that causes these cases to fall through the cracks of the justice system. To have someone that is familiar with the process of forensic investigations, as well as knowledge on the tribe(s) affected, I hope to begin to break down some of those barriers and help to build trust between law enforcement agencies and the families of MMIP, because that’s basically what it comes down to, is trust and communication.


I think another aspect that a lot of people don’t think about, is that within tribes, there are belief systems and customs that law enforcement and forensic scientists aren’t always aware of, and this can cause more harm (spiritually) to the families or the individual themselves. As someone who is a part of the Indigenous community and is learning new things everyday pertaining to tribal knowledge, I find that this is a very important aspect to consider when taking on these cases, as every tribe is different, and cultural practices should take a high priority, even in forensic science situations.


Photo credit: Antonio Ibarra Olivares



What impact has Ohkomi Forensics had so far in addressing the MMIP crisis, including the comparison database for the Blackfeet Tribe that you are building and what are your long-term goals for the company?

Although Ohkomi Forensics is still in the very early stages of development, I have been assisting on cases for a few years now, and lending a hand where I can. Whether that’s helping to organize MMIW/MMIP awareness events or assisting the families directly on their loved one’s case. Over the years I have gained experience and a large network of professionals that I plan to carry out into my work with Ohkomi Forensics. In doing this line of work, I’ve come to realize that this is not a new issue. This issue can be seen in historical cases as well, with the victims of residential schools, and in how our ancestors’ remains in their final resting areas have been removed and mistreated over time, which now sit in museums and collections and need to be repatriated/rematriated. With the formation of a genetic database to be used in comparison for these types of cases, I believe this database can also be of use to MMIP cases as well. So that is something I plan to carry into our efforts at Ohkomi Forensics once we get our own lab up and running.

“Search. Identify. Rematriate.” is our mission: to search for these lost loved ones, identify them using modern forensic techniques and technology, and rematriate (return the sacred to the mother in order to restore balance).


As a voice in this field, what changes or improvements would you like to see in how MMIP cases are handled at local, state, and federal levels?

As I stated before, I would like to see better communication, better collaboration, and more efforts towards trust being built amongst all those involved. In order to take on an issue this big, it is going to take a team effort, and being able to work together is going to be the key in helping to solve these cases. There are so many knowledgeable people out there in all different fields of expertise; we just got to know how to organize investigations to fit the unique challenges on a case-by-case basis.


What advice would you give to young Indigenous individuals interested in pursuing a career in forensic science or advocacy?

I would say the sky is the limit, and though there is not a lot of Indigenous representation in the field of forensics, law, etc., these are the positions we need to put ourselves into for our voices to be heard. Often times, young Indigenous people go away for school and come back to their home communities and find that there isn’t a position available to them that fits their specific passions. A prime example, a Forensic Anthropology position that works specifically for the tribes in Montana. Therefore, we must create our own. This idea was the motivation for the start of Ohkomi Forensics.


We haven’t always been given a seat at the table, or the chance to speak up, and now is the time. Study hard, find your passion, do what is best for you and for your community, and let’s work together in uplifting those voices that are fighting hard to be heard. The issue of MMIP is not going to get any better if we don’t do anything about it. So, iikaakiimaat (try hard)! And let’s get to work.


Is there anything that the forensic community can do to assist as you work on getting your lab established?

Though I have a lot of knowledge in the forensics field, I can’t do it all. Forensic professionals in all areas of expertise are more than welcome to lend a hand when needed, and encouraged to assist in cases that may have specific needs, that I (or my team) do not specialize in.


Also, as a nonprofit organization, we have started from ground zero and our lab establishment will be based on the amount of donations and grants we receive, so any support is greatly appreciated.