On June 5, 2017, Ashley Loring Heavyrunner disappeared from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. The then 20-year-old college student stopped by her parents’ house that day and went to a party; then, at some point, she became part of an epidemic of missing Indigenous women. Six years later she’s still missing.
“When she went missing, it really hit our community hard,” says Haley Omeasoo, a classmate and a distant relative of Heavyrunner. Omeasoo, a descendent of the Blackfeet Tribe and a member of the Hopi Tribe, decided to pursue forensic anthropology so she could help find Heavyrunner and other missing Indigenous people. Today she’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Montana. In September Omeasoo joined other researchers at a workshop of the International Symposium on Human Identification in Denver, Colo., to share new strategies for using DNA to identify missing persons. Of the human remains found in the U.S. each year, about 1,000 still remain unidentified after a year has gone by. It is “a mass disaster over time,” says retired FBI geneticist Bruce Budowle, who organized the symposium.
Recent advances in rapid DNA sequencing, along with genetic genealogy that traces familial relationships, are beginning to be used to solve missing person cases that had long gone cold, Budowle, Omeasoo and other scientists reported in Denver. New testing kits can extract many thousands of genetic markers from unidentified human remains, and that high number makes it much easier to link those remains to missing persons or their relatives. Older kits could only salvage a few dozen such markers. Traditional testing could at best identify a first- or second-degree relative from an unknown DNA sample. The newer methods, however, can identify even very distant relatives, giving law enforcement a much better chance to connect remains to a family.
According to an estimate from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, each year more than 4,000 sets of human remains are found in the United States, and of those about a quarter stay unidentified after one year. The situation is particularly dire for Native American populations. No single database tracks missing and murdered Indigenous women, but figures from the National Crime Information Center suggest that nearly 5,500 missing persons reports of Indigenous women and girls were filed in 2022 alone.
What’s more, the primary U.S. database of missing persons, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, doesn’t include DNA data. So when remains are found, there’s nothing to match them to—unless the missing person or a very close relative (who shares enough genetic markers for a partial match) happens to be in the FBI’s criminal DNA database, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).
That’s where forensic investigative genetic genealogy, or FIGG, can help. Using FIGG, law enforcement personnel can search the DNA of people who have voluntarily contributed DNA profiles to genealogy databases such as GEDmatch and DNASolves, which allow users to upload data from 23andMe and other commercial testing services. Private DNA analysis companies such as Parabon NanoLabs and Othram have worked with law enforcement to solve hundreds of cases in the past few years using genetic genealogy, including decades-old cases such as the Golden State Killer and Long Island Serial Killer murders.
Now, Budowle says, investigators are using the same approaches to link unidentified remains to missing persons. Parabon, for instance, says that of the 293 cases they have helped to solve to date, 77 have involved unidentified remains. One limitation remains, however: DNA profiles from a broad population are needed for comparison with remains. Because of privacy concerns, the U.S. Department of Justice and some states have dialed back on law enforcement’s access to ancestry databases. Plus, the data that are available come mostly from people with white European ancestry; very little are available for Native American and other minority populations.
That’s one reason cases involving Indigenous people remain among the most difficult to solve. Resources are slim, and jurisdiction is complicated on tribal lands, and furthermore, DNA analysis poses thorny cultural issues. Some tribes have ethical prohibitions against destructively sampling human remains, and many are wary of providing genetic information.
Still, there has been some promising recent news. For instance, in 2008 skeletal remains were found in a remote part of the Yakama Nation Reservation in Washington State. Investigators could not get a useful genetic profile using the technology of the time, but in 2022 the Yakima County Coroner’s Office partnered with Othram to try newer techniques. Othram scientists had improved methods for collecting DNA from bones and used rapid genome sequencing to develop a full genetic profile. They then compared that profile with DNA provided by family members of a woman who was reported missing in the area more than 35 years earlier.
This time the work paid off. In January 2023 the remains were identified as belonging to Daisy Mae Tallman, also known as Daisy Mae Heath, a Native American woman who was 29 years old when she disappeared in 1987. Her remains were returned to her family.
Omeasoo and her graduate advisor, anthropologist Meradeth Snow of the University of Montana, are working with the Blackfeet Tribe to create a DNA database of tribal members that can be compared with unidentified human remains. The tribe will own and maintain its own data. To alleviate concerns about destroying remains, Snow has adapted nondestructive methods to recover DNA. She uses a nontoxic chemical solution that releases DNA from bone so that it can then be essentially soaked up without damaging remains.
Someday this work could identify Ashley Heavyrunner’s remains. Omeasoo says she thinks about that possibility often. “Everyone still holds out hope” that somehow Heavyrunner is alive, “but it has been six years, and there’s been no answers,” she says. “So just getting her family closure, I think, is the most important thing right now.”
Snow has been able to provide that closure for one family. She tested the DNA of an ancient Native American man whose remains had been in storage for years. From the genetic material, she was able to pinpoint the man’s closest living relative and return his bones to his descendants. It was the most rewarding work she’s ever done, she says. “As a scientist, I’m not allowed to say it’s magic,” Snow says, “but, like, it feels like magic sometimes.”