No One Knows How Many Indigenous Women Are Missing or Murdered

No One Knows How Many Indigenous Women Are Missing or Murdered

I won’t pretend to be impartial. This, like most of the issues I write about, is highly personal. The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit people (collectively known as MMIWG2) impacts all Indigenous lives. Most of us know a relative or community member that has gone missing or been murdered. Indigenous women and Two Spirits often discuss the violence we face when we gather. However, the data on missing and murdered Indigenous people simply haven’t existed for those that are urban-based until recently.

The Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) conducted the first-ever report on urban missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit people, and the findings are terrifying. They found that many MMIWG2 weren’t being properly counted by law enforcement, making it difficult to advocate for policy to help bring an end to this violence. Media coverage was also found to be abysmal, resulting in a lack of public awareness.

These findings hurt me to read and write about due to the pain I feel when I think about what our people have endured. They also strike fear in me as an urban Indigenous Two Spirit who is read and treated as a woman. Would I be properly counted if I were to go missing or found murdered? Would law enforcement actually give my case the respect it deserves? Would I be counted as both Indigenous and Two Spirit? Probably not.

As a resident of Washington, D.C., the violence aimed at me and other Indigenous people is never too far from my mind. I fight my way through a city in which some of the most powerful people in the world live and work. I have to navigate a never-ending maze of disembodied Native heads on football jerseys worn by people that claim to “honor me” with said genocidal iconography. I have to drive on a road named “Indian Head Highway.” I have to swallow down my righteous rage in order to chase stories, access quotes and organize in a city that is home to my people’s mass murderers. It’s not a stretch for me to worry for my safety and that of my community.

As a signer of the first ever Indigenous Women’s Treaty, which requires those who sign it to defend the rights of the environment and living beings, I have an obligation to do this work and to support my relatives in gaining freedom from abusers and access to justice. Missing and murdered members of our community must be counted and honored regardless of where they live. This is my treaty obligation and I will fulfill it at all costs.

Barriers to Data

Seven in 10 Native people in the colonized U.S. live in urban areas. Many of us were forced to relocate to urban areas due to the Termination Era, and because of limited access to employment, education, health care and other services on our traditional lands. Despite this, the existing regulation aimed at solving the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people is for cisgender women who live on a reservation or tribal village. Urban residents, and especially urban Two Spirit and trans people, are typically left out of protections against this violence with the focus of policy placed on protecting Indigenous women on tribally recognized land.

A complex web of colonizing policy and Supreme Court case law has created jurisdictional issues that are primarily responsible for the rates of MMIWG2 on tribal lands. Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, Public Law 280 and the Indian Civil Rights Act have created barriers to the arrest, prosecution and sentencing of non-Natives who commit crimes on tribally recognized lands. With these policies, the U.S. government declared open hunting season on Native people.

Due to the dire need of new policy that protects the sovereignty of tribes in order to end this crisis, many have focused on legislation to help those on reservations. While this is desperately needed, the UIHI report shows that urban Natives are in need of help.

The Urban Indian Health Institute looked at cases in 71 cities within 29 states going back to 1900. It used police records, news coverage (including tribal media), social media and conversations with Native people in order to collect data. Approximately two-thirds of the cases found were from 2010-2018. This is particularly disturbing, given that this is not a new issue, but rather has been an ongoing crisis for hundreds of years. Despite looking at multiple states, the vast majority of the eastern seaboard wasn’t investigated, including New York City, which is home to the highest population of urban Natives in a single U.S city. Only two cities on the east coast even had cases mentioned — Orlando, Florida; and Buffalo, New York. The Urban Indian Health Institute was unavailable for comment.

The institute encountered numerous problems while attempting to access data, according to the report. Despite multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to law enforcement agencies, UIHI was either outright denied the information, told it doesn’t exist or ignored. Researchers then turned to MuckRock, a paid service that assisted in FOIA requests.

The findings are stunning, but not surprising for many Indigenous people. The Urban Indian Health Institute found 506 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous cisgender women, transwomen and Two Spirits. However, the collection of data on violence against Indigenous transwomen and Two Spirits are significantly lower. Of those cases, 25 percent were missing persons, 56 percent were murdered and 19 percent are unknown. The youngest victim was less than 1 year old, with the oldest being 83 and a median age of 29. Of the 506 cases that the Urban Indian Health Institute identified, 153 of them weren’t listed in any law enforcement databases. It’s as if the indignities and violence that these women and Two Spirit people suffered don’t matter. They have simply disappeared from existence.

During data collection, the Urban Indian Health Institute experienced multiple problems with cooperation by law enforcement. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Billings, Montana — the cities with the highest rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and Two Spirit people — law enforcement wouldn’t submit data to the Urban Indian Health Institute. The Billings Chief of Police even accused researchers of not submitting FOIA requests. When screenshots of the submitted FOIA requests were sent to the department, neither he nor anyone from the Billings Police Department was heard from again. Given that some agencies charge a fee to fulfill FOIA requests and that MuckRock had to be contracted to access data, it is too likely that the average Indigenous relative or tribal member has little chance of getting answers on relevant cases.

Alaska has the highest number of recognized Indigenous people in the U.S. The Alaska Department of Public Safety estimates there were anywhere between 800 to 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and Two Spirit people since 1940. Despite this alarming figure, Alaska State Troopers refused to fulfill FOIA requests, claiming that it was too “laborious” for them to turn over the data. Doing their job protecting Indigenous women apparently requires too much work of them.

The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) also refused to release any information to the Urban Indian Health Institute. Kerry Hawk Lessard, executive director of Native American Lifelines, told Truthout that the UIHI reached out to her regarding her social media post about Tiffany Jones, a Baltimore resident of the Lumbee Nation, who was abducted, tortured and found murdered in August 2018. Lessard asserted that one of the primary problems the Native community in Baltimore is facing is a lack of reliable law enforcement data. “I have seen community members listed as several different races, which tells me law enforcement is not asking (for racial classification) and just eyeballing it,” Lessard stated. In other areas of Maryland, “American Indian” and “Alaska Native” are classified as “other.” BPD refused to comment.

In Oregon, UIHI made a FOIA request for the Portland Police Department, and even paid for it, yet the organization didn’t receive any data before the report was published. Laura John, tribal relations director for the City of Portland Office of Government Relations, told Truthout that while they experienced issues with receiving the FOIA request, they have refunded UIHI, provided them the requested data and are in the process of making significant policy changes to rectify this issue. John told Truthout that as a result of the failures documented in the UIHI report that the Portland Police Department will now be trained on how to recognize and enforce tribal government-granted restraining orders, as well as how to capture the race of sexual assault survivors and their tribal nations, and how to record whether they are enrolled, citizens or descendants. This is in addition to a previous policy change allowing survivors of violence to access their legal records for free.

John went on to say she is thankful UIHI is undertaking this research because it allows her to see where the system is failing and to correct it. “When you strengthen the system to benefit Indian Country it helps us all.”

Portland is an anomaly in its newfound recognition that racial classification is important, and as a result, the numbers of the missing and murdered nationwide are hard to pinpoint. Racial misclassification is an ongoing problem with law enforcement data in part because the databases default to “white” if a race isn’t entered. Not only are Indigenous people not being properly counted, but neither are Black, Brown and Asian people. Additionally, the data on the rates of violence against white people is inflated.

Several police departments gave the Urban Indian Health Institute data that was supposedly on American Indians, but the subjects had Indian-American surnames. The Sacramento police claimed this error was because those with Indian-American names must be biracial. This shows that not only are we not being counted, but law enforcement doesn’t even understand the differences between those that are Indigenous to Turtle Island and people from India.

Thirteen percent of the cities’ law enforcement agencies were unable to even search for cases based on race. Lack of federal recognition has also played a large role in the lack of data. Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles were listed as urban areas whose traditional Indigenous nations aren’t acknowledged by the U.S. As a result, Indigenous women and girls native to these lands may not even be included in the data. Misclassification of deaths by law enforcement as suicides and overdoses were also reported in the study.

Data Collection Is Resistance

Annita Lucchesi, a Cheyenne descendant and executive director of Sovereign Bodies Institute, told Truthout, “This is an issue of tribal sovereignty … citizenship is a political identity, not a geographic convenience.” She went on to point out that American citizens don’t cease to be citizens if they travel abroad and that the same respect needs to be extended to Indigenous people. “If they leave tribal lands, they’re still tribal citizens, so if they’re going missing or murdered, why aren’t they (Tribal Nations) not informed?”

Indigenous people have a long and difficult history with law enforcement. Police have rarely been an agent of good. Community activist Lissa YellowBird-Chase told a story to attendees at the study release and community discussion in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 2018, about how it took local law enforcement four hours to show up when Olivia Lone Bear’s body was found, but it took less than an hour for four officers to show up at her door after she posted on social media regarding the Fargo Police Department’s incompetence on this case.

Lucchesi also pointed out that when non-Native law enforcement agencies such as the FBI claim that they’re understaffed and underfunded as a reason behind the lack of coverage, they’re given resources, whereas tribal police are instead called “incompetent” and jurisdiction is then given to non-Native agencies.

Incompetence and lack of cooperation by law enforcement were not the only problems cited in the study. The lack of media representation and accuracy in covering the stories of missing and murdered women, girls and Two Spirits were also obstacles to gathering data. The Urban Indian Health Institute found that 95 percent of the cases in their study were never covered by national or international media. They looked at 934 articles that covered 129 cases of the 506 in the study. Only 14 percent of cases were covered more than once. Violent language and victim blaming is another common problem in media portrayals of the missing and murdered people. Forty-six media outlets used “violent language” in their coverage as defined by the Urban Indian Health Institute. This type of language includes references to drugs, alcohol, sex work and the victim’s criminal history, for instance.

Lucchessi told Truthout that prejudice is often at the root of why non-Native media don’t give missing and murdered people the attention they should. “A death of a Native person or missing Native person isn’t worth the space in their publication or worth the time to write about,” she said.

Despite the work of Indigenous people and Nations, this crisis isn’t going to end anytime soon. On January 29, pregnant Kristine Howato was murdered by a passenger while driving for Lyft in Tempe, Arizona. Lyft has taken no responsibility for her death or the safety of its drivers. The Washington Post covered the story, but failed to mention that Howato is Indigenous and how her murder is part of the larger issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and Native genocide.

Two days after Howato was murdered, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved both the SURVIVE Act and the Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization. The Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment (SURVIVE) Act includes an increase that will award 5 percent of the DOJ’s Crime Victims Fund (CVF) to Native tribes through a grant program. The Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization and Amendments (TLOA) Act of 2017 reauthorizes and extends crucial programs under the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. Among other things, this bill will help to rectify the issues of poor data collection by the DOJ on Indigenous trafficking victims. While these bills are necessary to help our relatives on reservations they do very little for urban Natives.

Abigail Echo Hawk (Pawnee), director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, said at the study release and community discussion that “data is a sacred story.” The sad reality is that while we as Indigenous people know what’s happening to our women, children and Two Spirits, we simply don’t have the hard numbers. Without those, policy changes within any branch of the U.S. government become near impossible. These numbers matter. Our lives matter. The collection of data is an act of resistance against Native genocide and one we all must be dedicated to.

Note: This article has been amended to clarify that the policy change allowing survivors of violence to access their legal records for free occurred before the publication of the UIHI report.