By Olivia Guzman
There is a cold case crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in North America. An epidemic of violence against females in general notwithstanding, Indigenous females are at a great disadvantage in the United States. In 2016, there was an estimated 5,712 cases of MMIWG, however only 116 of these cases were logged into the Department of Justice database. Of these 116 cases, the youngest victim was less than one year old and the eldest was 83 (UIHI 2018). The roots of this problem include institutional racism, poor record collection, a disconnect in the relationship between law enforcement agencies and Indigenous communities, and a lack of representation of this crisis in the mass media.
In a recent study conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), 506 cases were confirmed, with this number likely to be greater as a result of the lack of data collection (UIHI 2018). Under the Freedom of Information Act, the institute tried to access records from 71 law enforcement agencies in the United States. While 40 agencies provided some level of information, 14 did not, and 18 agencies never responded. In a conversation with the institute, a representative from the Seattle Police Department, for example, was quoted saying, “the Homicide unit found that ‘N’ was being used in the 60s up through the late 70s and early 80s – meant Negro not Native American” (UIHI 2018). This racial misclassification alone could be responsible for hundreds of false identifications. Seattle has the highest number of MMIWG out of all US cities. This helps to disprove another common misconception that all of the violence towards Indigenous females is occurring only on reservations. Although 70% of Native Americans in the United States live in urban areas, because the general population is unaware of this fact it is easy to assume that the complexity of jurisdiction on reservations is the reason these cases are not being solved (UIHI 2018).
Lack of mass media’s attention to this crisis and an existing implicit cultural bias in reporting contribute to systematic marginalizing of Indigenous peoples. The UIHI has analyzed 506 cases, but only 25% of the cases were reported on by local, regional, or national media. Reflecting implicit cultural bias and overwhelming ignorance about Indigenous heritage and presence in the United States, the majority of the content in the media focused on violence on reservations. Through content analysis of the existing media coverage, the UIHI discovered that the language often used in the articles reporting on violence vis-à-vis Indigenous persons took on a victim-blaming tone. Some of the specific examples in such coverage include, but are not limited to, a focus on drugs and alcohol, misgendering victims, giving false information on the cases, and/or not naming the victims. Using this rhetoric continues perpetuating the false narrative that reservations are dangerous places and promotes harmful stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. Such rhetoric does not help addressing an existing crisis of MMIWG in North America in general, and the United States in particular. Due to the lack of reporting and the implicit bias in what little media coverage this crisis is given, the Native American Journalist Association (NAJA) has implemented a system of critical review for journalists to ensure they are not coming from a place of cultural bias.
A mortifying case of Savanna LaFontaine Greywind finally brought this epidemic to the mass media’s attention. Savanna was a 22-year-old from North Dakota who was murdered in 2017. She was eight months pregnant when she was lured into her upstairs neighbor’s apartment and strangled to death. The female who murdered her took Savanna’s baby and dumped Savanna’s body in the Red River. When Savanna’s mother initially reported that her daughter was missing, law enforcement officers searched the neighbor’s apartment and found nothing. Savanna’s mother went on record stating that she felt the police were “very rude and had no sympathy whatsoever… felt like they just had no care. They told me they did their job” (Gumprecht 2017). The police officers searched the neighbor’s apartment three times and claimed to not find anything suspicious.
Savanna’s disappearance did not make it into the local news until four days after she was reported missing. Though the police officers had searched the apartment three times, they obtained a search warrant to do a thorough search only five days after Savanna’s disappearance. This final search resulted in finding Savanna’s baby. The female neighbor and her boyfriend were arrested. Savanna’s body was found only on August 27th, nine days after her initial disappearance, by local kayakers; her body was wrapped in plastic and lodged against a tree by the bank of the Red River. On August 28th, the neighbor and her boyfriend were each charged with conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and providing false information to police (Gumprecht 2017).
This horrific story finally forced the United States’ government to act on this crisis; this tragedy let to Savanna’s Act, a bill proposed to the Senate that would vastly improve the system of addressing violence toward and disappearance and murder of Indigenous women and girls. The Act will (1) provide training for law enforcement officers on how to record tribal enrollment for victims in federal databases; (2) develop guidelines for responses to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous persons; (3) report statistics on missing and murdered Indigenous persons; and (4) make the FBI to include gender in its annual statistics on the website reporting on missing and unidentified persons. Savanna’s Act has recently passed through the Senate committee on Indian Affairs and, at the time of this writing, is on its way to the full Senate for consideration (Murkowski 2019).
While Savanna’s Act is a step in the right direction, this bill does not apply to urban areas, which are not under federal but states’ jurisdiction. To make a difference in this crisis, the consideration for urban American Indian and Alaska Natives must be taken in account. Further, the idea of Indigenous Data Sovereignty would allow tribal nations to be notified and given the right to speak for their citizens, if they are missing or murdered. Currently, it is uncommon for tribal nations to be notified or given any data regarding their citizens. With Indigenous Data Sovereignty, Indigenous nations will be able to control the collection, ownership, and use of their own data (UIHI 2018).
Forensic positive identification is paramount to addressing the crisis of MMIWG. These Indigenous persons have become all but invisible in the eyes of the government and the mass media. Hence, providing a positive identification to the families who are suffering the loss of a loved one can offer help and closure. Some techniques for positive identification could be dental comparisons or racial/ethnic estimations. Due to the racial misclassification discussed earlier, being able to determine if remains belong to an Indigenous person will help improve the data collection on this crisis. Another important way of addressing this crisis is personal and social activism, which begins by educating oneself on local Indigenous history and heritage and becoming acutely aware that Indigenous peoples are still here, living next to you. One activist intervention is to acknowledge May 5th as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Day; wearing red on this day will signal solidarity to help raise awareness of this crisis. But most importantly, we should speak up against violence vis-a-vis Indigenous peoples in our communities and confront a five-centuries long history of settler-colonial violence against Indigenous peoples. Becoming informed about this crisis and Indigenous history will help you, the reader, to speak to your families, neighbors, state representatives, and reflect creatively on what else you can do to help establish justice and reconciliation in your community! Find your way and find your voice!
Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI)
2018 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, www.uihi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Missing-and-Murdered-Indigenous-Women-and-Girls-Report.pdf
2017 “What Exactly Happened to Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind? Here’s What We Know and Don’t Know.” Twin Cities, Twin Cities, 18 Sept. 2017, www.twincities.com/2017/09/18/what-exactly-happened-to-savanna-lafontaine-greywind-heres-what-we-know-and-dont-know/
2019 S.227 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Savanna’s Act.” Congress.gov, 25 Jan. 2019, www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/227
Image Source: Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Committee on Native American Ministries