This is the first installment of a series published in partnership with Indian Country Today about the missing and murdered Native women in the United States and Canada. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
Valentine’s Day in Fargo, North Dakota, was cold this year: It was snowing and the wind blew sharply. A small group of about 12 to 14 Native American women and supporters, however, silently walked along a path under the Veterans Memorial Bridge and made their way up snow-covered stairs to the top of the bridge, where the cars pass by. Despite the biting cold, they stood quietly in prayer before sprinkling handfuls of tobacco into the icy waters of the Red River.
To the casual observer it was a humble ritual, held in a remote place. But many tribes believe that offering tobacco to the earth or water carries prayers to the Creator.
Valentine’s Day has become the official day for Native women to recognize and memorialize the missing and murdered women and girls whom they believe government leaders in the United States and Canada too often ignore. They began holding an annual march in 1992, after an Indigenous woman was found murdered and dismembered in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood.
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For Native communities, the border between the United States and Canada is nonexistent; many tribal communities, including Blackfeet, Ojibwe, and Mohawk, straddle the border and have members in both the United States and Canada. They are asking why only Canadian officials have begun exploring violence against Native women.
Canadian Indigenous women’s groups began calling attention to the high rates of missing and murdered women and girls in the 1990s, when Indigenous women and girls started going missing along the now-dubbed Highway of Tears, a 450-mile length of the Yellowhead Highway 16 in British Columbia. Between 1989 and 2006, nine women were found murdered or went missing along the highway, which passes through and near about a dozen small First Nations communities.
Many Indigenous people believe that the number is actually much higher: Indigenous people often resort to hitchhiking along the remote highway that has little public transportation.
The infamous Pickton case, in which Robert William Pickton of British Columbia was convicted of six murders, though he has been accused of killing some 49 women by many in the community, brought international attention to the high rates of violence against Indigenous women in Canada. Many of Pickton’s victims were Indigenous women who frequented Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood known for drugs and sex work. Although the murders began in the 1990s, Pickton was not arrested until 2002.
The Pickton case, as well as the Highway of Tears murders, were pivotal in inspiring Indigenous women’s grassroots groups to organize in calling attention to what they maintain has been a longstanding trend by Canadian law enforcement to overlook violence against Indigenous women.
In 2006, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) began painstakingly creating a government-funded database of missing and murdered Indigenous women. A 2010 report from the Sisters in Spirit initiative made clear that there was a direct connection between Canada’s violent colonial past and targeted violence against Indigenous women. It also suggested that nearly 600 Indigenous women had gone missing or were murdered in the preceding 30 years.
Although Indigenous women make up 4 percent of Canada’s female population, they comprise 16 percent of the women murdered in the country. They are also three times more likely to report experiencing violence than other groups, according to a 2014 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview.
According to the RCMP report, there were approximately 1,200 Indigenous women who were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012.
Organizations such as Amnesty International Canada, however, dispute these numbers and speculate that they may in fact be much higher.
Indigenous women’s organizations such as the NWAC confronted the Canadian government with the data. For years, lawmakers resisted calls for a national inquiry into the situation. In December 2015, however, shortly after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election, the government announced that it would proceed with a formal inquiry.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett announced that the inquiry would begin with consultations with families of missing and murdered women, tribes, and grassroots Indigenous organizations. On February 23, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a $100 million, three-year strategy to begin inquiries into the roots of violence against Indigenous women.
Native American women note that there are many similarities between the United States and Canada when it comes to the ways in which Indigenous women have experienced violence.
Take Rita Burnette, for example. In 2002, the 14-year-old was killed by her then-21-year-old cousin, Kevin Brown Jr. Brown pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, “stating he beat Rita Burnette with his fists until she was unconscious and then left her in a wooded area near Naytahwaush” in Minnesota, according to local reports. Burnette’s murder, which was similar to the many Indigenous girls murdered in Canada, was one of the stories included in a display coordinated by the “Sing Our Rivers Red” project in February.
Native women in the United States have the highest rates of sexual assault in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. One in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. This is two-and-a-half times the national rate for other women.
And yet, the United States has not responded to this crisis by allocating more resources to investigate the roots of these violent incidents.
“If the U.S. had the same political and economic will as Canada to explore not only our rate of sexual assault but also our numbers of missing and murdered women, I think they might find them to be quite similar,” Lisa Brunner told Rewire. Brunner, White Earth Ojibwe, runs the Spirit First Nations Coalition that provides outreach and education about sexual violence to teenagers on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. She was one of the coordinators of the Valentine’s Day march in Fargo.
Brunner vividly recalled a conversation with a teen girl on the reservation in which the teen noted that she had already discussed with her mother what they would do when she is raped. “We decided not to report it because nothing will happen and it would only make it worse,” according to Brunner.
“She didn’t say ‘if,’ she said ‘when.’ I will remember that as long as I live,” Brunner said.