Say Their Names: Ashley Loring Heavyrunner, Arden Pepion (Blackfeet) \ Bonnie Three Irons, Rolynn Rides Horse, Selena Not Afraid (Crow) \ Dawn Day (Eastern Shoshone) \ Hanna Harris, Henny Scott, Rosella Woodenthigh (Northern Cheyenne) \ Jade Wagon, Jocelyn Watt (Northern Arapaho) \ Jermain Carlo (Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes) \ Kaysera Stops at Pretty Places (Crow & Northern Cheyenne)
Women-led, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Movement (MMIWG) increases awareness for staggering violence, disappearances, and exploitation against Indigenous peoples, especially women. Described as an epidemic in all tribal communities in the United States and Canada, the crisis of MMIWG has gone unnoticed for decades. Despite growing support nationally, few resources have been given to either tribal or urban Native communities, or to grassroots organizations combatting MMIWG.
Colonizing Women’s Bodies: Western colonial histories position Indigenous women as domestic and inferior beings. As a result, political autonomy was stripped away from their narratives. According to the National Women’s Association of Canada: “Discussing exploitation and trafficking in relation to Indigenous women necessarily means understanding the historical and ongoing colonial sexualization of Indigenous women’s bodies. Since early colonization, Indigenous women have been positioned by Western ideology as inherently violable and less valuable than non-Indigenous, non-racialized bodies.”
A Data and Jurisdiction Issue: In the United States, Native American / Alaska Native women and girls are murdered at 10 times the rate of any other ethnicity (12 times in Canada). Homicide is the third leading cause of death for Native women in the U.S. (Centers for Disease Control). In Canada, women are 6 times more likely to die from homicide. (Reclaiming Power and Place). The Government of Canada reports that 10 percent of all missing women are Indigenous. These statistics, however, only reflect the number of recorded cases.
The challenges of obtaining conclusive MMIWG data are based on inefficient resources to combat violent crimes and sexual assaults, and on lack of judicial intervention. When asked, “why is there a data issue?” the responses are alarming. Cases of violence and disappearances are underreported because of victim-blaming, protection of violent offenders, and institutional racism in the media. Police jurisdiction among tribal sovereignties, and state and federal agencies is not clear. This creates issues of poor record-keeping protocols and a lack of relationships between law enforcement and Indigenous communities. Missing person reports and Amber Alerts are not issued quickly or are never opened. State and local agencies see these cases as tribal issues and tribes see these as federal issues. In the end, the victims and their families suffer.
29: The median age of MMIWG victims. (Urban Indian Health Institute)
5,712: Reported incidents of missing and murdered Native American and Alaska Native women and girls in 2016. Of those, only 116 cases were logged into the Department of Justice database.
Human trafficking: Sexual and labor trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide and the second-largest criminal industry after drug trafficking. 40 percent of those cases are Indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada. (National Congress of American Indians)
Rates of violence on reservations: Can be up to ten times higher than rates of national domestic violence. And 88 percent of MMIWG murders are committed by non-Native people and on Native-owned lands. Tribal police do not have authority over non-Native citizens. (National Congress of American Indians)
Rates of violence in urban areas: Approx. 71 percent of American Indian / Alaska Natives live in urban (off-reservation) communities, but little data has been collected on rates of violence amongst those Native women. The Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle conducted a study of 71 cities in the United States in 2017. They found 506 unique cases of MMIWG—128 (25 percent) were missing person cases, 280 (56 percent) were murder cases, and 98 (19 percent) had an unknown status. Wyoming was the only western state excluded from this study because of inconclusive findings or a lack of credible data.
Legislative Response and Hope:
As of 2020, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, Minnesota, Arizona, California, and Nebraska have created MMIWG task forces. These task forces include tribal governments, lawmakers, police forces, survivors, and allies. In November 2019, President Donald Trump also created a national MMIWG task force through “Operation Lady Justice.” The goal of these groups is to find strategies for improvement to remove jurisdictional barriers and increase reporting of violent crimes and missing persons. In 2021, President Joseph Biden entrusted Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) to create the Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services overseen by the Department of Interior in April 2021.
Three bills are currently held up in the Senate. The first is the “Savanna’s Act” which would require every state’s U.S. attorney to implement guidelines to follow when a Native woman or girl is reported murdered or missing. (Passed Sept 2020) The next is the “Not Invisible Act” which would require the Department of the Interior to coordinate violent crime prevention efforts across federal agencies. The commission would produce recommendations to improve the response to MMIWG, human trafficking, and violent crime in Indian Country. (Passed Sept 2020) Lastly, a resolution will be introduced to designate May 5th as “National Day of Awareness for Missing & Murdered Native Women and Girls.” This day highlights rates of homicide in Indian Country. The resolution is dedicated in memory of Hanna Harris, a Lame Deer woman murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana in 2013.
The Advocates and Educators: Grassroots organizations still lead the way in data collection and support for MMIWG. Here are three organizations to follow:
Sovereign Bodies Institute (SBI): Based on Indigenous knowledge-gathering, SBI collects data for research on gender and sexual violence against Indigenous peoples. A survivor of domestic violence, Annita Lucchesi (Northern Cheyenne) created the organization to support other survivors and create a database of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Not Our Native Daughters: Created by survivor Lynette Grey Bull (Northern Arapaho), the group was created for education and awareness of the MMIWG movement. Lynette serves the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and is also running for Congress.
Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women: Their mission is to “stop violence against Native women and children by advocating for social change.” They provide support for victims of sexual violence, trafficking, and stalking in New Mexico’s tribal communities.