Making Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Visible

2019 was a groundbreaking year for Native American women.

In January, Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo woman from New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation from Kansas, joined the U.S. House of Representatives as the first Native American women ever to serve in Congress; in June, the librarian of Congress named the first Native American woman as U.S. Poet Laureate—Joy Harjo, a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation.

A priority issue for Harjo, Haaland and Davids is the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls in the United States. “Congress has never had a voice like mine, a Native American woman who sees the blind spots that have existed for far too long,” Rep. Haaland said. “That’s why I’ve been working on multiple bills and legislation to address this crisis.”

On Sept. 9, 2019, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution sponsored by Councilmember Debora Juarez that begins to address the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Activists and advocates attended to mark the much-needed action. (Seattle City Council / Creative Commons)

Reps. Haaland and Davids are supported by a mass movement in the U.S. and Canada raising an alarm about missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). This movement has organized marches, community meetings, the building of databases, local city council meetings, tribal council meetings and domestic violence trainings for police.

Native American women experience much higher rates of violence than non-Native women. According to the National Institute of Justice, 84 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetimes and 56 percent experience sexual violence. An astounding 97 percent were victimized by non-Native perpetrators.

One of the reasons rates of violence against Native American women are so high is that federal law limits tribal court’s jurisdiction to criminally prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes on tribal lands. Historically, the U.S. government limited tribal jurisdiction on the grounds that non-Natives would not receive fair treatment in tribal courts. But federal prosecutors who have the power to prosecute these crimes, rarely do. Prosecuting violence against Native women is not a priority.

Haaland and Davids, however, are using their new positions in Congress to address the crisis of violence against Native American women. With their strong support, the House of Representatives in April passed a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with a provision that would recognize tribal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and sex trafficking on tribal lands. The bill is now languishing in the Senate, where Republicans have so far blocked a vote on the measure.

But violence against Native women occurs off reservations as well. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, there have been 506 documented cases of missing and murdered Native women and girls in 71 cities across the U.S. since 2010. The UIHI identified another 153 cases that were not in law enforcement records.

In fact, most crimes against Native American women and girls are not included in federal data. According to the National Crime Information Center, 5,712 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing in 2016 alone, but only 116 of those cases were logged with the Department of Justice. Violence against Native American women is much less likely to be reported or prosecuted than violence against non-Native women.

Reps. Haaland and Davids are supporting two bills that would address the federal government’s failure to track and respond to violence against indigenous women: Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act.

Savanna’s Act—named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a young pregnant woman who was abducted and killed in Fargo, North Dakota, in 2017—would increase coordination and accountability between federal and tribal agencies, require the Justice Department to create standardized guidelines for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native women and mandate the reporting of statistics on these cases to Congress each year. The Not Invisible Act would create an advisory committee comprised of law enforcement, tribal leaders, survivors and victims’ family members to research and recommend ways to address the crisis of violence against Native American women to the Departments of Justice and of the Interior and designate an official within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to improve violent crime prevention efforts across federal agencies.

For the past three years, Congress has designated May 5—the birthday of Hanna Harris—the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native American Women. A member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana, Harris was a young mother whose family reported her missing in July 2013 and a few days later found her murdered.

I encourage everyone to take a few moments, as the Thanksgiving season winds down, to think about Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, Hanna Harris and the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in the U.S. and Canada. Learn how colonization, national expansion, boarding schools, assimilation and environmental policies have had—and continue to have—a devastating impact on Native American women and girls. Start with Muscogee (Creek) scholar Sarah Deer’s book The Beginning and End of Rape, or Anishinaabe (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) author Louise Erdich’s National Book Award winner The Round House. (Or the poetry of Joy Harjo.) Follow #MMIW/G or support the Sovereign Bodies Institute, which maintains a MMIW database.

Since 1970, Native Americans and their supporters have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the U.S. thanksgiving holiday—remembering the millions of Native people who have been lost to genocide, the theft of their lands, relentless assaults on their cultures, as well as the pain of survival. This year—which marks the 50th anniversary of the National Day of Mourning—we must remember and honor the missing and murdered indigenous women of these lands currently called the United States.


An earlier version of this piece was published by the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Republished with permission.

About

Carrie N. Baker is Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the US Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015.