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by Daryl E. Lucas

In September 2021, the disappearance of Gabby Petito, a young white woman from New York who was traveling with her boyfriend across the country, made national news. The search by five different government agencies remained in the public eye until, tragically, her remains were found in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park less than a month later.

According to the Wyoming Missing and Murdered Indigenous Task Force, nearly 500 indigenous women were reported missing between 2011 and 2021 in the same area that Petito was found. In an interview with KVTB in Idaho, Tai Simpson, the director of Social Change for the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, who is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, pointed out the contrast to how missing persons cases involving Indigenous women are handled. She noted that there are 5,700 unsolved missing Indigenous person cases nationwide.

As an example, in November 2020, Mary Johnson, an indigenous woman and member of the Tulalip Tribe, went missing in Washington State. The search for her consisted of a billboard and local media coverage. To date, Johnson has not been found.

The governor of Washington state recently signed legislation that grants state authorities the power to create an alert system for missing Indigenous women similar to Amber Alerts, which is an alert system established in 1996 that addresses child abductions. The Indigenous system would notify law enforcement when there is a report of a missing Indigenous person. In addition, the system places messages on highway reader boards, as well as on the radio and social media.

The disappearance of Mary Johnson highlights an ongoing crisis of American Indian and Alaska Natives who experience violence at higher rates than the national average. The Centers for Disease Control states that homicide is the third leading cause of death for Native women and girls under the age of 19. A 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Justice revealed that the murder rate among Native women is 10 times the national average and 84% of American Indian or Alaska Native women have experienced some type of violence.

Congress addressed the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), by passing two acts—Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act—in October 2020.   MMIW is also referred to as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), as well as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit Individuals (MMIWG2S).

Legacy of colonialism

The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center says the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people—an Indigenous person who expresses a third or fourth gender—is part of a legacy of colonialism. Colonialism is the practice of one country taking full or partial political control of another country and occupying it with settlers for the purpose of profiting from its resources and economy.

In the late 15th century, European nations such as Portugal, Spain, France and England sent out expeditions to explore and establish new trade routes, extracting natural resources from lands outside of their borders. These countries invaded parts of Africa, India, China and the Americas, establishing colonies and conquering local Indigenous people. A National Geographic article, titled “What is Colonialism?,” explains, “Colonial powers justified their conquests by asserting that they had a legal and religious obligation to take over the land and culture of Indigenous peoples. Conquering nations cast their role as civilizing ‘barbaric’ or ‘savage nations.’”

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the Doctrine of Discovery, a decree granting permission to Christian nations to invade, occupy and enslave non-Christian subjects in the New World. When Europeans “discovered” new lands for their king and then set up a colony, the doctrine granted them possession over the land and the Indigenous people. The U.S. Supreme Court invoked the Doctrine of Discovery as justification for its 1823 decision in Johnson v M’Intosh, which established that American Indians did not have the right to sell their lands to private citizens.

Native American treatment under the law

In 1817, Congress passed the Federal Enclaves Act, which made “Indian Country” a “federal enclave” or territory and granted jurisdiction to the U.S. federal government over crimes committed against Indians by non-Indians and vice versa. Several Indian Appropriations Acts were also passed from 1851 to 1885. Among other things, these acts created the reservation system, in which Indigenous people were made to leave their ancestral lands and placed on lands set aside for them by the federal government, essentially establishing new enclaves.

The Major Crimes Act of 1885 granted federal jurisdiction over “major crimes,” including murder on reservations, greatly reducing the ability of American Indians and Alaska Natives to enforce laws through their own courts. The act gave jurisdiction over misdemeanors to tribal courts, but only those committed by Native Americans, not non-Indians. Essentially, Native Americans had no ability to hold non-Indians accountable for any crime committed on tribal land.

In more modern times, Public Law 280, passed in 1953, “returned jurisdiction of crimes committed on Indian reservations in six states, not to the tribes, but to the state where the Indian reservation is located.” In an opinion piece for The New York Times, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and a professor of Native American studies at Regis University in Denver, wrote about the “jurisdictional complexities” of prosecuting cases on Native American land, including whether the victim or offender is a Native American and where the crime took place.

“If a serious felony crime is committed on a reservation by a Native person, the state or tribal police are obligated to refer the case to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or another federal agency,” Professor Weiden wrote. “But here’s the problem: Federal authorities have the right to decline prosecutions in serious felony crimes on Native lands, even when the perpetrator has been arrested. And they frequently do. And, at that point, the offender is usually set free.”

In 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 39% of the cases referred to the FBI and US Attorney’s Office were declined. Professor Weiden considers the lack of accountability and jurisdictional complexity of prosecuting felony crimes on reservations as a significant factor for the high rates of violence against Indigenous women.

Savanna’s Act

Another impediment to finding missing and murdered Native American women is the accuracy of the data on the victims. According to the “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Report,” published by the Urban Indian Health Institute, much of the data about missing Native Americans collected by government agencies contained errors. For example, some victims were not identified as Indigenous. National Crime Information Center records revealed that nearly 6,000 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing in 2016, but only 116 were found in the US Department of Justice’s missing persons’ database.

The Savanna’s Act, named in honor of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a young member of the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota who was murdered in 2017, specifically addresses the issue of how much data is available and how information about missing and murdered Indigenous people is collected. The law requires greater sharing of information between tribal, federal, state, and municipal law enforcement agencies.

Savanna’s Act requires the Secretary of the Interior and the US Attorney General to collaborate with tribal nations to improve data collection and provide culturally relevant training to law enforcement who investigate cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.

The Not Invisible Act

The Not Invisible Act instructs the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Justice to create a commission that will make recommendations on how all stakeholders involved, including the tribal nations, federal, city, and state law enforcement agencies can work together to keep Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people safe. The act requires the commission be made up of family members of missing and murdered Indigenous people, survivors, tribal and local law enforcement, as well as members from tribal advocacy organizations whose purpose is to end violence against women and children.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. In a press statement, Secretary Haaland said: “The Interior and Justice Departments have a unique opportunity to marshal our resources to finally address the crisis of violence against Indigenous peoples. Doing this successfully means seeking active and ongoing engagement from experts both inside and outside of the government. Incorporating Indigenous knowledge, tribal consultation and a commission that reflects members who know first-hand the needs of their people will be critical as we address this epidemic in Native American and Alaska Native communities.”

The commission was to be created within 120 days following the signing of the legislation but has been delayed. The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center pointed out that the positions for family members and survivors is uncompensated, creating a significant obstacle for people interested in joining. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that the relevant agencies within the Departments of Justice and the Interior have stepped up efforts to investigate cases of missing and murdered Native American women in Indian Country, “but they have not implemented certain requirements to increase intergovernmental coordination and data collection” as mandated by Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act. At press time, no one had been selected for the commission.

In March 2022, Congress also passed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which increases the criminal jurisdiction of tribal courts to cover non-Indian perpetrators on reservations. According to a fact sheet provided by the White House, the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Justice and Interior will prioritize the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous people. The Department of the Interior also established the Missing and Murdered Unit intended “to pursue justice for missing or murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the difference in the way the disappearances of Gabby Petito and Mary Johnson were handled? What do you think about that?
  2. List three ways that colonialism dating back to the 15th century affected Indigenous people throughout history. How does colonialism still affect Indigenous people today?
  3. The Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act were passed in October 2020. How do you think these acts will affect the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls? Explain you answer.

Glossary Words
felonya serious criminal offense usually punished by imprisonment of more than one year.
Indigenous –native; originating in a particular place.
jurisdiction — authority to interpret or apply the law.
misdemeanor — a lesser crime, usually punishable by a fine or short jail term.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2022 issue of Respect, the NJSBF’s diversity newsletter.

BONUS CONTENT: Awareness on a National Level

To shed more light on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), a congressional delegation from Montana pushed for a National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls in 2017. The delegation selected May 5th to honor the memory of Hanna Harris, a 21-year-old member of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, who went missing on July 4, 2013, and was found murdered four days later. May 5th is Harris’ birthday.

In 2021, President Joseph Biden issued a Presidential Proclamation declaring May 5th as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day. In his remarks, President Biden acknowledged the “disproportionately high number of missing or murdered Indigenous people” in the U.S.

“Our failure to allocate the necessary resources and muster the necessary commitment to addressing and preventing this ongoing tragedy not only demeans the dignity and humanity of each person who goes missing or is murdered, it sends pain and shockwaves across our Tribal communities,” President Biden said. “Our treaty and trust responsibilities to Tribal Nations require our best efforts, and our concern for the well-being of these fellow citizens require us to act with urgency. To this end, our government must strengthen its support and collaboration with tribal communities.”

The proclamation calls on “all Americans and asks all levels of government to support tribal governments and tribal communities’ efforts to increase awareness of the issue of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives through appropriate programs and activities.”

The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center observes an entire week highlighting the MMIWG issue, culminating on May 5th. The organization encourages people to wear red on May 5th to show support and raise awareness.

In the January 2022 edition of Restoration Magazine, a publication dedicated to emerging issues impacting Native American women, the executive directors of several Native American organizations, including the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, urged a call to action on the MMIWG issue.

“A National Week of Action for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls provides a process for public healing and accountability for this crisis and honors those who have gone missing or been murdered. It is essential on the broadest level to acknowledge the historic and ongoing, current human suffering and death that global colonization has brought to Indigenous women,” the leaders wrote. “Violence against Indigenous women is preventable. We call on those concerned for the safety of Native women to organize at the local, Tribal, state, national and international levels to support the National Week of Action culminating in a National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.”–Daryl Lucas