Indigenous women and girls face physical violence—including murder, kidnapping, sexual trafficking, and rape—with a “shocking regularity” that amounts to an “epidemic” of violence, according to an August 2019 report from ThinkProgress. (Here and following, our use of the terms “women and girls” should be read as including those who identify as Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, or asexual.) From tribal reservations and rural communities to urban areas, the scope of the problem is “almost impossible to put into context,” the Guardian reported in May 2019, because no single federal government database consistently tracks how many Native women and girls go missing each year. Due to negligence and incapacity, combined with the complexity of criminal jurisdiction on tribal lands limiting which crimes tribal courts can prosecute, law enforcement and the justice system seldom identify the perpetrators of these crimes, much less charge or convict them.
With some notable exceptions, the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls receive little to no major news coverage: A January 2020 article in the New Republic described one New York Times report on the subject as “a small recognition in a sea of loss.” Both the crisis and Native responses to it—epitomized by the burgeoning Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement—are dramatically underreported.
As ThinkProgress reported, the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) found 5712 reports of murdered or missing Native women and girls throughout the United States in 2016—but only 116 of these were logged in the Department of Justice’s database. According to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) data, Native Americans disappear at twice the per capita rate of white Americans, while research funded by the Department of Justice found that on some tribal lands Indigenous women were murdered at more than ten times the national average, the Guardian reported. A 2016 Department of Justice report, based on 2010 data, found that “more than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women (84.3 percent) have experienced violence in their lifetime,” and more than one in three (34.1 percent) have experienced rape.
“I wouldn’t say we’re more vulnerable,” Annita Lucchesi, a Southern Cheyenne descendant and executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, told the Guardian, “I’d say we’re targeted.”
Campaigners, including the Sovereign Bodies Institute, the Brave Heart Society, and the Urban Indian Health Institute, identify aspects of systemic racism—including the indelible legacies of settler colonialism, issues with law enforcement, a lack of reliable and comprehensive data, and flawed policymaking—as deep-rooted sources of the crisis. [Note: On settler colonialism, see Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 2: “The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism.”]
As YES! Magazine reported, tribal communities in the United States often lack jurisdiction to respond to crimes: The Major Crimes Act of 1885 restricted the crimes that tribal courts could prosecute, and in a 1978 case, Oliphant v. Suquamish, the Supreme Court determined that tribal courts cannot prosecute non-Native offenders, even if they live on tribal lands. Although the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act empowered tribal courts to handle some cases related to domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protection orders, it left sex trafficking and other forms of sexual violence outside tribal jurisdiction, YES! Magazine reported. [Note: See also Garet Bleir and Anya Zoledziowski, “Cases of Missing and Murdered Native American Women Challenge Police, Courts,” News 21 (Hate in America series), August 15, 2018, https://hateinamerica.news21.com/cases-of-missing-murdered-native-american-women-challenge-police-courts/.]
In the absence of tribal jurisdiction, in many cases the FBI or county sheriffs are officially responsible for investigating crimes against women and girls. However, county sheriffs and local FBI offices are typically “understaffed and underfunded,” Lucchesi told YES! Magazine. The impacts of inadequate staffing and funding are evident in a 2010 Government Accountability Office report, which found that, from 2005 to 2009, federal prosecutors declined to prosecute 67 percent of the 2594 cases involving sexual violence in Indian Country. As noted in a report from the Sovereign Bodies Institute and the Brave Heart Society, “lack of accountability helps to maintain a culture of violence, where Indigenous women and girls are made to be easy targets.”
Nearly three-quarters of American Indian and Alaska Natives live in urban areas, but the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in US cities is not necessarily any better reported. In a 2018 report, the Urban Indian Health Institute documented 506 cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls across 71 cities. The report found 280 cases of murder (56 percent), 128 missing persons cases (25 percent), and 98 cases with unknown status (19 percent). The UIHI report emphasized that, due to the Institute’s limited resources and “poor data collection by numerous cities,” the 506 cases its report identified are “likely an undercount” of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in urban areas. As the Guardian reported, more than 60 percent of the police departments in the 71 cities studied either failed to “demonstrate that they were accurately tracking disappearances, or provided [UIHI] with compromised data.” Despite incomplete data, the UIHI report documented cases tied to domestic violence, sexual assault, police brutality, and lack of safety for sex workers—all underscored by “institutional and structural racism, gaps in law enforcement response and prosecution, along with lack of data,” the Guardian reported.
ThinkProgress reported how Native organizations, such as the Global Indigenous Council, have taken the initiative to draw attention to the epidemic of violence: In collaboration with regional tribal leadership groups, the Global Indigenous Council has placed “Invisible No More” billboards, depicting a Native woman with a giant red hand painted over her mouth, along state highways in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma.
The MMIW movement has also focused attention on connections between the fossil fuel industry—including “man camps,” the temporary housing facilities for crews working on pipeline projects like Keystone XL—and violence against Native women. A production boom in oil fields in northeastern Montana, for example, has led to surges in violent crime, sex trafficking, and rape cases, according to tribal police and local activists, YES! Magazine reported. The Sovereign Bodies Institute has documented 529 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, states that would be further impacted by extensions to the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. Nearly 80 percent of those cases, YES! Magazine reported, are either unsolved or without an identified perpetrator, and 30 percent are active missing persons cases.
From the White House, a world apart from both tribal lands and most Native people living in cities, Donald Trump issued an executive order in November 2019 to establish a task force—comprised exclusively of federal officials—on missing and murdered Indigenous people. A report in the New Republic characterized Trump’s order as “a meager offering from a violent administration.” Although a number of Native leaders joined in the announcement and thanked the president, other prominent leaders were more circumspect. Suzan Harjo—a member of the Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee Tribe and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient—described the task force as coopting the efforts of Native activists at the tribal, community, and state levels; Congresswoman Deb Holland (D-NM), a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, released a statement condemning “lack of consultation with Tribes, which is a pattern of this Administration on all Indian Country issues.”
The New York Times and the Seattle Times deserve recognition for their reporting on the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in the United States, but the failure of other major news outlets on this issue is striking.
In June 2019 the Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released its final report, which received widespread news coverage in the United States. The Washington Post and Time magazine reported on the Inquiry’s conclusion, that the crisis constituted genocide. [Note: The Washington Post reported the “explosive conclusion” of the national inquiry: “Canada’s indigenous women and girls are ‘un-der siege,’ and their deaths and disappearances amount to ‘a race-based genocide.’” Amanda Coletta, “Canadian Government Inquiry Assails ‘Genocide’ of Indigenous Women, Girls,” Washington Post, June 3, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/canadian-government-inquiry-indigenous-women-have-been-victims-of-race-based-genocide/2019/06/02/3d46f670-8329-11e9-b585-e36b16a531aa_story.html. As Time magazine reported, “The disappearance of indigenous women and girls in Canada was determined to be genocide by a three-year national inquiry.” Amy Gunia, “‘Genocide’ was Committed against Canada’s Indigenous Women, an Inquiry Found,” Time, June 3, 2019, https://time.com/5600293/canada-indigenous-women-genocide/.] In a segment that featured Annita Lucchesi of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, NPR compared the situations in the United States and Canada. The New York Times noted that, “even before its release, the inquiry has been forcing a national reckoning.”
But coverage from major outlets such as the Washington Post, Time magazine, and others might well have left US audiences with the impression that the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women is primarily a Canadian issue. Beyond coverage of Canada’s National Inquiry, US corporate news outlets have provided nearly nothing in the way of reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States. When corporate news outlets do cover this topic, reporting has tended to focus on congressional legislation and divisive party politics. [Note: For example, in June 2019 CBS News reported on the progress of Savanna’s Act in the Senate, versions of the Not Invisible Act in the House and Senate, and congressional disputes over reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. See Grace Segers, “Congress Tackles Crisis of Missing and Murdered Native American Women,” CBS News, June 12, 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/congress-crisis-missing-and-murdered-native-american-women/.]
Although numerous news outlets reported in late 2019 on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s efforts to block reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, corporate news outlets mostly ignored how amendments to it would address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. [Note: The House version included amendments that would provide advocate services in state courts for Native women living in cities, require the Government Accountability Office to report on law enforcement agencies’ responses to the crisis, authorize tribal law enforcement to prosecute non-Native perpetrators in cases of domestic violence, expand the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act’s definition of domestic violence to include violence against children and elders, and grant tribal jurisdiction over sexual assault and other crimes. See, for example, Dan Desai Martin, “Mitch McConnell Has Blocked Help for Abuse Victims for More Than 6 Months,” American Independent, October 10, 2019, https://americanindependent.com/senate-violence-against-women-act-mitch-mcconnell-john-cornyn-vawa-congress/; and Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan, “Is Mitch McConnell Trying to Kill the Violence Against Women Act?” Truthdig, October 24, 2019, https://www.truthdig.com/articles/is-mitch-mcconnell-trying-to-kill-the-violence-against-women-act/.]
With few exceptions, major news outlets like NPR and the Washington Post have limited their coverage to other important but secondary matters, such as Native women organizing self-defense classes, the symbolism of the clothing worn by the gay Indigenous couple who won Canada’s Amazing Race, and book reviews.
As a result of limited news coverage, the United States is far from a national reckoning on its crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. [Note: Readers seeking to become more informed are advised to visit the websites of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, which maintains an impressive page of resources, at https://www.niwrc.org/resources; the Sovereign Bodies Institute, at https://www.sovereign-bodies.org/; and the Urban Indian Health Institute, at https://www.uihi.org/.]
Danielle McLean, “Missing and Murdered Women is a Grim, Unsolved Problem. Native Communities are Demanding Action,” ThinkProgress, August 24, 2019, https://archive.thinkprogress.org/missing-and-murdered-women-is-a-grim-unsolved-problem-native-communities-are-demanding-action-cdde640e38b3/.
Abaki Beck, “Why Aren’t Fossil Fuel Companies Held Accountable for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women?” YES! Magazine, October 5, 2019, https://www.yesmagazine.org/planet/native-fossil-fuel-missing-murdered-indigenous-women-mmiwg-20191004.
Hallie Golden, “‘Sister, Where Did You Go?’: The Native American Women Disappearing from US Cities,” The Guardian, May 1, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/apr/30/missing-native-american-women-alyssa-mclemore.
Carrie N. Baker, “Making Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Visible,” Ms. Magazine, December 2, 2019, https://msmagazine.com/2019/12/02/making-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women-and-girls-visible/. Originally published as “Speaking Out Carrie Baker: Invisible No More: Native American Women and Girls on Thanksgiving,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 27, 2019, https://www.gazettenet.com/Columnist-Carrie-N-Baker-30815785.
Student Researchers: Jeramy Dominguez (Sonoma State University), Katrina Tend (Diablo Valley College), and James Byers (Frostburg State University)
Faculty Evaluators: Ashley Hall (Sonoma State University), Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College), and Andy Duncan (Frostburg State University)