The hard work of Native advocates and leaders to call attention to the ongoing problem of missing and murdered Native women in the United States may finally be gaining traction.
In states across the country, lawmakers are giving the issue more attention in recent months. As reported by Rewire.News, a December 2017 Office of the Inspector General report revealed damning information regarding the Department of Justice’s failure to meet some of the most basic mandates of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, such as creating a reliable, accurate method to gather data on crime in Indian Country and the numbers of missing and murdered Native women.
A 2016 National Institute of Justice report added momentum to the issue with data about the high rates of violence against Native people. According to the report, 84.3 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetimes.
The details of the August 2017 tragic murder of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was also a victim of fetal abduction, drew worldwide attention to the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women. The case spurred Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) to introduce legislation, titled Savanna’s Act, calling for improved federal crime data collection and the creation of a standardized protocol for responding to reports of missing and murdered Native women.
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This month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law directing the Washington State Patrol to conduct a study on how to increase reporting and investigations of missing Native women in the state. The patrol unit will also work with tribes and local and federal law enforcement to determine the scope of the problem locally and create partnerships to improve reporting and investigation.
Although there is no official data detailing the rates of missing and murdered Native women, communities on and off reservations maintain that the number is very high. As reported by Rewire.News, nearly every Native American family has a story of a female relative who has gone missing or been murdered.
On some reservations, women are murdered at more than ten times the national average.
Indigenous advocates in Canada began raising awareness of the issue back in the 1970s, with calls for a public investigation into a series of indigenous girls and women who went missing or were murdered while hitchhiking along Highway 16, a remote stretch of road in British Columbia that passes through several Indian reserves. The total number of victims is unknown, but so many have disappeared or gone missing that local communities dubbed the road the Highway of Tears.
Advocates with the Native Women’s Association of Canada conducted independent research beginning in 2005 to document the number of missing and murdered indigenous women. Although they were able to document more than 500 cases, they insisted that the actual number was far greater.
In 2014, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police released a report revealing 1,181 missing and murdered indigenous women. Responding to mounting pressure from the public and community leaders, the Canadian government launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2015.
In contrast, the United States’ response to calls for action has been slow, though lately it has been gaining steam at the state level.
Earlier this month, Minnesota state Reps. Mary Kunesh-Podein (DFL–New Brighton) and Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville) called for the creation of a governor’s task force to address the endemic crisis of missing and murdered Native women in the state. According to Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center (MIWRC), the call represents an important step forward for public recognition of the problem of missing and murdered Native women. Park, of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation, said, “It’s my understanding that one of the goals is to more clearly define the term missing and murdered.”
For instance, some of MIWRC’s clients, who may be battling substance abuse and addiction and engaging in survival sex, are viewed as missing by their families, who may have lost contact with them. “There are a lot of missing Native women right under our noses that are ignored by the general public because they may not be seen as deserving victims,” Park said.
Although removed from her community, Deanndra Yazzie of the Navajo or Dine’ tribe was never reported missing. The 19-year-old grew estranged from her family after moving from the Navajo reservation to Phoenix where she soon found herself homeless as she struggled with drug use. Yazzie alleges that she was kidnapped, raped, and assaulted over 48 hours by 33-year-old Jonathan Rouzan before managing to escape, as Rewire.News reported.
Some missing women are later found to have been murdered, but some are never seen again by friends or family. Trudi Lee told Rewire.News about her sister Janice who went missing near the Yakama Reservation in Washington in 1971. Although the family reported Janice missing at the time, there has been no news since about Janice.
“Native women are often not seen as worthy victims. We first have to prove our innocence, that we weren’t drunk or out partying,” said Carmen O’Leary, executive director of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains.
When Malinda Limberhand tried to report her 21-year-old daughter Hanna Harris missing in 2013 on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, tribal police dismissed her concerns insisting that Harris was likely out drinking during the July 4 weekend.
Harris was later found murdered.
Reports of missing and murdered Native women don’t garner the same attention and response as those of white women, according to Park.
Park recalled the tragic 2003 case of a young white Minnesota college student who was abducted from a shopping mall and later found raped and murdered. When Dru Sjodin went missing, the public and police organized enormous search parties; media in the region broadcast beautiful photos of the young woman, according to Park. Her case was front-page news. Perhaps most significant, her murder by a repeat sex offender led to major changes in how the country incarcerates and monitors sex offenders. Since Sjodin’s murder, the whereabouts of registered sex offenders is now available nationally to the public; sex offenders are incarcerated longer and supervised more closely after release.
“Racism is deeply embedded in how missing and murdered victims are viewed and portrayed in the media, by the public, and by law enforcement,” Park said.
“When Native women go missing, there seems to be more emphasis on their behavior than in finding them,” she added.
Park hopes that, if convened, the Minnesota task force will work on creating new laws and recommendations as well as support services for missing Native women.
“Even missing women engaging in risky behavior deserve kindness and love,” she said.
Even as political leaders are now calling for better reporting and investigation of missing and murdered indigenous women, advocates have continued their work raising awareness of the issue, often using striking visuals that emerged from the grassroots Red Dress movement that originated in Canada. A group of Ojibwe or Anishinabe women jingle dress dancers from Minnesota recently traveled to a conference against sex trafficking in order to call attention to the issue. The women wore handmade red jingle dresses as they danced the traditional healing dance, meant not only to help people suffering losses, but also to give strength and support to law enforcement and service providers working on the issue.
“The jingle dress and dance are precious gifts for the Anishinabe people; they help us heal ourselves in our own way,” said Sarah Agaton Howes of the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Band.