WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
A previously unnamed woman known only as the sole unidentified victim of an alleged serial killer in Winnipeg now has a name given to her by the community: Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.
The name came after discussions among a group of advocates, knowledge keepers and grandmothers who found it didn’t sit well with them that the slain woman, who police are trying to identify, was only being referred to as an unknown victim, said Tobi Jolly, a program co-ordinator at Ka Ni Kanichihk, an Indigenous social services organization.
“The way that we refer to people impacts the way we think about them,” said Jolly, who was part of the group that came up with the name for the woman.
“Whether or not we know her name, she has one. Whether or not we know her family, she has one. And we wanted to honour that in her.”
Winnipeg police said on Monday they will also use the name Buffalo Woman for the woman going forward.
Police said last week they believe she was killed by Jeremy Skibicki, who was also charged in May in the killing of 24-year-old Rebecca Contois. Contois was from O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation, also known as Crane River, located on the western shore of Lake Manitoba
Two of the additional alleged victims were identified as Morgan Harris, 39, and Marcedes Myran, 26. Both were from Long Plain First Nation in south central Manitoba.
All the identified women were living in Winnipeg when they were killed, police say.
Few details have been released about Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, who police said they believe was Indigenous and in her mid-20s.
Jolly said the specific name of Buffalo Woman was decided on after someone brought forward a teaching “of grandmother buffalo, the buffalo spirit, giving her name to those of us who don’t have spirit names yet so that we know each other.”
That teaching “seemed to fit nicely with our situation here, where we have a woman who hasn’t found her name yet — or we haven’t found her name yet,” she said.
Police have found Contois’s remains, but none of the other women’s bodies. Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said he believes their remains are all at the Brady Landfill, where Contois’s partial remains were found — but too much time has passed and officers will not conduct another search.
Skibicki’s lawyer has said his client plans to plead not guilty to the four counts of first-degree murder he’s charged with in the women’s deaths, which police allege happened between March and May.
Police will use name as sign of respect
The group wanted to give the woman a name as soon as possible for several reasons, including so police could start using it, Jolly said.
In a news release on Monday afternoon, the Winnipeg Police Service said it will do just that.
The change was made as a sign of respect and at the request of community advocates, knowledge keepers, elders and leadership, the release said.
Members of the police service, including the force’s family support and resource advocate, are also meeting with family representatives and leadership. Police will not provide any further comment until those meetings are done, the release said.
Jolly said the group also wanted the name to be ready in time for a vigil for missing and murdered Indigenous people that happened on Sunday — where she was moved to hear people shout it.
“I think giving her a piece of her identity back — giving her as much of her identity as we can, [acknowledging] that she is an Indigenous woman, that she is sacred, that she is also gifted that name by buffalo spirit — I think that was important for all of us,” she said.
That echoes a sentiment shared at the rally by Point Douglas MLA Bernadette Smith, whose sister Claudette Osborne went missing in 2008.
“We don’t want someone to be known as unidentified,” Smith said. “A life is sacred.”
Delores Daniels, whose 19-year-old daughter Serena McKay was fatally beaten on Sagkeeng First Nation in 2017, said Buffalo Woman was also the spirit name her daughter was given after her death.
“The buffalo represents respect, and our people need to be respected, and the men out there need to respect our women,” Daniels said at the rally.
Jolly said while advocates can’t force anyone to use Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe’s name, she hopes people see why it’s important.
“I think people who don’t use it need to do a little bit more thinking about what a name is for, need to do a little bit more thinking about why her name is important and why it’s important to think about her in this way until we find her name,” Jolly said.
Support is available for anyone affected by details of this case. If you require support, you can contact Ka Ni Kanichihk’s Medicine Bear Counselling, Support and Elder Services at 204-594-6500, ext. 102 or 104, (within Winnipeg) or 1-888-953-5264 (outside Winnipeg).
Support is also available via Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison unit at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.
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