A Silent Epidemic

The Problem

For decades, in both the United States and Canada, Indigenous women have been going missing or murdered at alarming rates. In Canada, the infamous Highway of Tears is a prime example of missing and murdered Indigenous women. This 450-mile highway has a reported 16 women who have gone missing since around 1969. However, other organizations have estimated numbers of over 40 women, about at least 1 woman missing per year on this single highway. In the United States, we can look at statistics and figures provided to show the scope of this problem. In 2016, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a report on the leading causes of death among Native Americans. Looking at the numbers for women, we can see that for babies (ages 1-4), assaults (homicide) is the #3 leading cause of death. For children (5-9), it’s #2, pre-adolescence (10-14), #4, adolescence (15-19), #3, young adults (20-24), #3, and adults (25-34) #6. Between young adults and adults, there is a drop in assaults being a leading cause of death. Although this report doesn’t specify if these Native Americans were on reservations or not, it’s important to know that approximately 71% of Native Americans are deemed “Urban Indians”, or Indians who live in Urban areas. Some may conclude that more resources should be spent off of reservations since a majority of Native Americans don’t live on them, however, tribal police on reservations already have a lack of resources and with the vast amounts of rural land to search, reservations ultimately need more resources.

One of the more important sources came from the Urban Indian Health Institute report released November of 2018. In this report, they highlight this epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and sources of this problem. They look specifically at 71 urban cities across the United States.

Number of Cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in the U.S. gathered by the UIHI
(UIHI Report)

The map above shows the number of MMIW cases that the UIHI has found from law enforcement records, national and state databases, media reports, social media, and community and family members. In total, they found 506 cases, 153 of them with no records in databases.


Number of Cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in the U.S. given by the police
(UIHI Report)

The map above shows the number of MMIW cases that were found in police records, less than the records found by the UIHI.


Number of Cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in the U.S. reported by the media
(UIHI Report)

The map above shows the number of MMIW cases covered by the media, much lower than the actual cases known and that exist.

In the UIHI report, they state they use the National Crime Information Center’s (NCIC) database and the National Missing & Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) as their national databases. Since the UIHI reported 506 cases in these 71 cities, only the NamUS database could be used in comparison because one can search by city and specific demographics. In 2017, according to NamUS, there were 31 cases of MMIW in these cities, a 177% difference in the number of cases. Because the NCIC doesn’t break down their numbers into more specific demographics, I could only estimate the total number of missing Native Americans nationally in 2017. 2016 saw 5,712 total missing Native women and with a 0.6% increase in total missing person cases in 2017, there would be an estimated 5,747 missing Native Women cases in the United States. Therefore, in 2017, out of the total missing person cases, 0.88% are Native women while Native women make up only 0.65% of the total United States population in the same year. And because many cases are unaccounted for, that percentage of missing Native women is believed to be higher.

No matter if the area is urban or rural, the amount of missing and assaulted Native women in the United States is shocking. This issue is prevalent and solutions are desperately needed.

Why is there a problem?

The UIHI report cited two different problems: Media and Law Enforcement. They explained a cycle found in the media coverage while I identified a larger, more complex cycle in the law enforcement.

Cycle of the Media Coverage

This cycle can begin with the language used in the media coverage of individual cases. The UIHI stated examples of the “violent language” used includes racism/stereotyping, a reference to drug/alcohol use, sex work, gang violence, or criminal history of the victim, and misgendering the victim. Use of this language plays into the stereotypes of Native Americans and makes Native American, especially Native women as vulnerable. This leads to more violent actions committed against Native women since they’re seen as worthy of it or weak, letting the perpetrator get away. After this, if the media chooses to report on the resulting case, then the language used would be similar, feeding back into this cycle.

Three-way Cycle of Problems with Law Enforcement

Starting with the bottom left, the police and the community, especially non-Native police, racial discriminate against Native Americans. One prime example is in Gallup, New Mexico, where there are 25 of the 506 cases of MMIW. This city has a large population of Navajo Indians, who mostly live in poverty and are discriminated against. They don’t have resources to thrive and get out of the situations they fall in, from alcoholism to drug abuse. As a result, other people in the town, from other citizens to the police, stereotype them, leading to stories of murders and attacks without justice. Because of this discrimination, Native Americans as a whole are not comfortable with going to the police for help. This leads to underreporting and no crimes and cases being solved.

In the top, because of the lack of resources from and for law enforcement, coupled with citizens not turning to them for help, most of the individuals take on the work of the case themselves. They start grassroots search parties, use their own transportation, from trucks to foot, to search the vast areas around them, and make their missing person flyers to send out and share in hopes of finding them. Because there are no data or resources to pull from and investigate, these people’s work usually falls short of finding their loved ones. This leads to cases not being reported and no crimes and cases being officially solved.

In the bottom right, the fact that data is not being collected at all or accurately creates problems with finding possible patterns and solving the cases. In the UIHI report, they found 153 cases that were not accounted by the police. And this was only in 71 cities that they looked into, not the whole country. And in cities, the databases don’t include the racial demographics for Native Americans to add or look for cases pertaining to them. This lack of accurate data leads to no crimes and cases being solved.

Outside of the UIHI report, other causes of this problem can be identified. One is an issue with sovereignty and jurisdiction. Despite the fact that the federal government recognizes a tribe’s sovereignty, they don’t communicate with the tribes and hurdles prevents the tribes from having access from resources and programs that state and federal governments have access to. Annita Lucceshi states “[tribes are] not even being notified, and they’re having no say in how things are handled. That’s the only example in the world when a nation isn’t notified when one of their citizens is killed.” There’s also a problem with changes in jurisdiction. If a crime starts on a reservation but is then moved off, for example, a woman is kidnapped on a reservation but then murdered off the land, then the jurisdiction is not on the tribe, which essentially means that the tribal police can’t conduct an investigation or gather any knowledge on the crime. This can also happen if there are a Native victim and a non-Native perpetrator and the crime occurs on tribal lands or reservations. This is especially a problem since with sexual assaults against Native women, 96% of their assaulters, at least one is non-Native so these assaulters cannot be prosecuted.

What’s being done?

Now that the problem have been defined and explained, we can look into possible solutions.

One of the most promising solutions comes from Dr. Annita Lucchesi. She created the MMIW Database to help report missing and murdered indigenous women and two-spirit (third gender recognized by some Indigenous people) in the United States and Canada from 1900 to now. Unlike other databases, this one accounts for a lot a detail, from tribal affiliation to relevant keywords used to case rulings and more. This high level of detail can help fill in any potential gaps in information needed to locate them and/or prosecute those involved. Lucchesi’s database is available for anyone to send their reports, which avoids the problem of individuals not wanting to go to the police. Since the database is essentially international, between the United States and Canada, it’s important to explore if this solution is viable since it could impact many people’s lives. In the United States, during the 60s and 70s, crime, especially murder, was increasing to rates not seen before. This caused problems between different police precincts due to the lack of information being shared and communication. One solution to help was the use of broadband radios and cell phones to communicate on the go when the timing was crucial. Another development was the creation of the National Crime Information Center. However, this was still ineffective at the time, given that very few police departments used the database. In the 90s, the NCIC was improved to the NCIC 2000 project. This helped to modernize the database, increase its reach nationally, and as a result, led to more communication between police and more cases being solved. If we modernized our current database to include racial markers for Native Americans and required updates of the cases from anyone involved, from tribal to state police, then not only would we have information to find more sources of problems, we would also have cases being reported, worked on, and then solved. However, this cannot be done when the only exhaustive database is being run by a single woman.

With the increase in different organizations and movements, we’re seeing people being educated and engaged and progress toward solutions. And before we can strive towards a comprehensive solution, we must first acknowledge that there is a problem in the first. Movements like these, help to shed light issues that many people don’t know about. The three prevalent movements with regard to the MMIW issue are the MMIW marches, Idle No More, and No More Stolen Sisters. There have been marches dedicated to the MMIW cause to help raise awareness of the issue and to sometimes hold vigils for those who were lost. Idle No More is a Canada based movement who calls for honoring Indigenous Sovereignty and to protect the land and water. No More Stolen Sisters is also a Canada based campaign through the Amnesty International.

A potential reason for Canada having more recognized and grounded movements are that the Canadian government launched a $53.8 million inquiry which is a step towards a solution that helps to unify the federal government and the Indigenous people. With the Indigenous people feeling like the government is listening and willing to help, they can be organized with movements to keep the issue in the spotlight and teach others about the issue. In the United States, on the other hand, not much help has been given by the government that’s been kept up with. For instance, the United States began the Tribal Access Program (TAP), which includes a full and light version. TAP allows tribes enrolled under the program to access national crime information databases as long as they have access to the Internet, comply with the training and auditing guidelines and pay user fees. Under TAP, 47 tribes currently apart of it. Below is a map that compares the magnitude of the cases to the location of the TAP stations. The issue is that some more rural areas might not have access to the Internet, preventing them from enrolling. And some tribes might not be able to join because they don’t have enough money, so they still don’t receive help because they have a lack of resources initially. We can see that even with the many TAP stations, they may not be effective since even in higher concentrated TAP areas, there is still a large magnitude of cases of MMIW. Another solution given by the United States is the Violence Against Women Act (2013). This gives tribes the ability to prosecute non-Indians who abuse women, with some restrictions. The three crimes covered are domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protection orders. However, crimes committed off tribal land, between two non-Indians, between two strangers, crimes committed by a person without a connection to the tribe, and child/elder abuse if it doesn’t violate protection orders. Each of these restrictions still allows loopholes for people to come on Indian land and commit crimes and still not be prosecuted. Congress also authorized $25 million from 2014 to 2018 for tribes to use, however, none of this has been allocated and instead, the tribes can only apply for other funding that may also cover the VAWA. Although the United States provided these solutions, because of the prior existing issues and issues with the programs, these solutions don’t actually solve anything.

The red dots are the Full TAP Stations and the green dots are the Light TAP Stations

But are marches and organization working? One of the most prominent marches in the United States was the Women’s March whose purpose was to unite everyone under the message of resistance against policies that restrict people and to educate people on different platforms. Their platforms included issues from police brutality to immigration and refugee rights to reproductive rights. Since the Women’s March, more women have been involved in leadership, from organizing marches across the country to running for political offices. Now, we have record-breaking numbers of women being elected into political offices. We can see that marches and organizations help to motivate people to make a change.

Looking into the politics in the United States, Heidi Heitkamp’s (D-ND) Savanna’s Act has been cited as an action that would help with the MMIW crisis. This act, proposed in 2017, has a purpose of requiring the Department of Justice to update the national databases with cases of MMIW and to include new fields to input the victim’s tribal enrollment or affiliation. It also plans to create standard protocols to serve as guidelines that respect those missing and murdered, use those protocols to investigate, require law enforcement to consult with Indian tribes, and provide agencies, tribal, state, and federal, with training and assistance with data collecting and using databases. However, this act still muddles the roles of tribal, state, and federal law enforcement and who’s in charge, which would lead to confusion on who to go to still for help and who’s in charge of the cases and investigations. This would also conflict with the existing laws of who has jurisdiction depending on where the incident takes place.

What can I do to help?

Since most of the organizations mentioned are run locally, donating, no matter the amount, helps tremendously to provide them with resources. Below are links to some donation pages.

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