Indigenous women only make up 1.1% of the total U.S. population, yet their murder rate is ten times higher on reservations than the national average. In Wyoming, a report covering data from 2011 to 2020 from the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force found that 50% of Indigenous individuals are located within a week, and 21% stay missing for up to 30 days or more — while only 11% of white people remain missing for that long.
The lack of governmental initiatives addressing these systemic issues can be attributed to the deep roots of colonialism in U.S. history, which makes this crisis difficult to fully eradicate — but there are rising grassroots efforts that help. The Murdered Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement has been a strong advocate for legal action and recognition against gender-based violence towards Indigenous women.
It is vital that we amend our oppressive and biased judicial system by implementing laws that support and empower Indigenous women, as well as grant tribes more governmental authority. By addressing the implications of colonialism, possible reasons for the influx in MMIW cases and effective steps that have been taken, we will be better equipped to enact further legislative changes that oppose the decades-long status quo. This is how we can finally put Indigenous women’s best interests first.
21-year-old Hanna Harris, a tribal citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, went missing in 2013. Despite her family’s efforts to immediately report her disappearance, local law enforcement downplayed the case. They told her mother that she was likely out partying and would return on her own accord, and she could search for Hanna herself if she was so upset.
Four days later, a volunteer search team found her body. However, it was so badly decomposed that the cause of her death was undeterminable.
Harris’ case is one of many that speaks to the racially biased systemic approaches towards investigating crimes against Indigenous women. Her birthday, May 5, represents national MMIW day.
In pre-colonial times, Indigenous women were honored and respected as authoritative figures within Native societies, often sharing active leadership roles with the men. However, the introduction of the European patriarchy led to the relentless objectification of Indigenous women.
American feminist scholar and activist Andrea Smith studied the relationship between colonization and sexual violence, arguing that sexual violence towards Indigenious women cannot be separated from America’s colonial history. In Smith’s paper, she writes that Indigenous women’s lack of clothing “polluted [them] with sexual sin” in the eyes of colonists. They regarded Indigenous women as inferior and therefore “rapable.”
Smith also argues that the colonial approach to Indigenous women and sexual violence continues to structure current policies towards Indigenous people. The colonial treatment of Indigenous people has set a precedent for modern stereotypes, and therefore the way we approach cases like Harris’ disappearance.
It’s unfortunately common for MMIW cases to be negatively portrayed within the media, if even covered at all. Media tends to select the victims and fallen women that they deem newsworthy. This bias is known as missing White woman syndrome, which notably favors the coverage of the disappearances involving white women compared to a racial minority like Indigenous people.
Understanding this is integral to creating new policies and legislations, as current laws are based on the country’s early imperialistic values.
Beyond the deep-rooted colonial history of MMIW cases, the influx of cases can also be attributed to the rise of “man camps” settled along pipeline construction sites near Indigenous communities and reservations. Man camps are temporary housing sites that contain primarily male employees who work on blue-collar development projects.
In 2021, two Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline workers were arrested for involvement in a sex trafficking operation. This took place in Beltrami County, Minn. where portions of two reservations — Red Lake and Leech Lake — reside. Seeing as how the FBI reported in 2016 that 40% of sex trafficking victims are Indigenous, and a 2019 study showed that man camps increase violent victimization by 70%, it’s not a stretch to claim that these camps have a directly negative impact on Indigenous communities — especially for women.
While multiple factors lead to the MMIW crisis, the most crucial ones are the past and present governmental shortcomings in addressing this issue.
The government only collects data on women from federally acknowledged tribes. Only 574 tribes are federally recognized, and more than 200 are not; this leaves nearly 40% of Indigenous women unaccounted for. Additionally, the process of earning federal recognition is incredibly long and arduous.
The U.S. government’s limitation on tribal power makes it difficult for even the MMIW cases of federally acknowledged tribes to be taken seriously. The 1978 Supreme Court ruling in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe took away the opportunity for tribes to seek criminal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators. Such a decision hinders the capabilities of tribes’ governmental authority and renders them vulnerable to the jurisdiction of a notoriously unjust court.
However, since becoming a nation-wide movement in Canada and the United States, MMIW has successfully urged Congress to pass bills that protect Indigenous women. Both the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act were passed in the same week in October of 2020.
The Not Invisible Act Commission is composed of six subcommittees intent on bettering “intergovernmental coordination to identify and combat violent crime within Indian lands and of Indians.” It also strives to incorporate the voices of survivors. Savanna’s Act required the Department of Justice to improve various guidelines and create a task force related to MMIW cases.
In 2022, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was reauthorized. This “expands special criminal jurisdiction of Tribal courts to cover non-Native perpetrators” of various crimes that affect primarily women and children. It also improves factors that have long been lacking in the gender-based violence that only becomes more and more prevalent in the U.S.
While these are all steps in the right direction, much more can be done on a federal level. This includes alleviating the obstacles that prohibit tribes from easily becoming federally recognized, addressing the discrepancy of media coverage between white and Indigenous women as well as the lack of adequate resources provided to Indigenous communities as a whole.
Although not much can be done to erase the colonial legacy left by the historical genocide of Indigenous people, we can make Indigenous communities currently living in the U.S. feel respected by the people and government through striving to grow from our critical shortcomings.
Trista Lara is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. She can be reached at email@example.com.