A Silent Epidemic (Crimes Against Indigenous Women)
We’ve all walked past flyers of missing people at a grocery store, outside a gas station, or even at a bus stop. To many of us, these are just faces that we likely won't see again. But to the families of these missing men, women and children, that poster is a last hope to find their missing loved ones. Pam Smith is an indigenous woman living in Oklahoma who has been desperately searching for her missing niece, Aubrey Dameron since March 2019. She's placed dozens of posters up around town, organized search teams and fought to have a pond drained. Most recently, she’s pleaded through Facebook posts about wanting her niece brought back home. Aubrey is just one of the thousands of indigenous women who have gone missing in the last year.
Indigenous women were never in any real danger of being victims of sexual violence or rape until the colonization of the Americas. Christopher Columbus himself was fully aware that they were bringing sexual violence against women when he wrote in one of his journals, “a hundred Castellanos (coins) are as easily obtained for a women as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.” Columbus and his men sold the Taino women into sex trafficking upon landing on their shores, and the abuse spread through the Americas as Spanish and other European countries colonized more parts of Central and North America. In the eyes of colonizers indigenous women were solely prostitutes that existed for sexual pleasure from the beginning.
As a result of brutal colonization, contemporary issues of sexual violence still exist. According to a report by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the prevalence, incidences and consequences of violence against women, indigenous women have the highest rate of violence of any group, including black men. Indigenous women also suffer the highest rate of domestic violence and rape of any group of women, and native women are murdered at more than ten times higher than the national average rate. Native women experience many types of disparities particularly in the categories of income, incarceration, education, and poverty. This inhibits their lives, and many are stuck in a cycle of abuse, homelessness, rape, and abductions.
While these numbers are extremely high as is, they are likely not even correct. There is a lack of data collections all across the United States, so any data that is collected is likely lower than reality. In 2016, the National Crime Information Center reported that 5,712 American Indian and Alaskan Native women were missing, but the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database only logged 116 of these cases. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that murder is the third leading cause of death among Indigenous women in the US. Because of this, a study was conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute that was aimed at assessing the numbers of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women across the country in urban cities. The study found that the reason for the lack of quality data included underreporting, racial misclassification, poor relationships between indigenous groups and law enforcement, poor record keeping protocols, and institutional racism in the media.
The cases they did find were widely distrusted by age and tribal affiliation. The youngest victim was under one year of age while the oldest was 83. 27% of the cases included victims under 18 and the mean victim age was 29. In response to this epidemic of violence, the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women movement (MMIW) started drawing some much-needed attention from law enforcement, legislators and the general public. With this new activism for MMIW, it was clear that the epidemic was being neglected. Specifically, in 2018, a policy brief by the National Congress of American Indians explained how the NIJ report and other reports were dependent on faulty Department of Justice databases. In September of 2019, BIA Deputy Bureau Director Addington testified that his office had not compiled data on missing persons or domestic violence statistics. Basically, tribal affiliation data was left out of national databases. Recently, a bill to address the data collection gaps, called Savannah’s Act (for Savannah Lafontaine-Greywin who was abducted and murdered in North Dakota) targeted the DOJ/Tribal coordination in reporting. It failed to pass the House last year, but became a law last month. Along with that, the Not Invisible Act was signed in October that created a joint commission between the DOI and the DOJ to promote coordination. Lastly, this month, the president signed an executive order for his own task force that would address MMIW, Operation Lady Justice. While the task force has been criticized, it is a step forward for Indigenous women. At the state level, many states including Washington, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota have created their own task forces to address the situation.
Right now, the focus is on legislative reform that will support justice for missing and murdered indigenous women. These task forces need to be watched, and there needs to be new reports coming out soon to prevent more women from disappearing. Grassroots indigenous groups are also vital to prevention. Pressure needs to be kept on legislators by the organizations and by Native American leaders. The best way to support these women are by donating to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA Organization or It Starts With Us, as both focus on giving tools to young indigenous girls to prevent abductions, and help families with financial support.