By Kara Roselle Smith, she/her
“Being a woman makes you a target in and of itself, but being an Indigenous woman heightens that. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to spread awareness about the murdered and missing but it does fall on our shoulders. A lot of times Black and Indigenous women lift each other up because we are the only ones who care about one other.” — In’yoni-Gabrielle Felix, Acjachemen and Chichimeca
These fears of In’yoni-Gabrielle Felix, who I spoke with on the phone, and other Indigenous women are real and are felt with good reason. Considered a minority on our own land, Indigenous women are three times more likely to be victims of violence than non-indigenous women and homicide is the fourth leading cause of death for those under 20. It happens so frequently that it has an acronym: MMIW, or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. A new iteration, MMIWG2S, also includes girls and those from the two-spirit community, who are impacted by violence at an even higher rate. The official day of observance for MMIWG2S is May 5, but it’s an epidemic that deserves year-round focus.
Though this movement is relatively new, the issue is not. Spanning the history of the United States and its colonization, millions of Indigenous women have gone missing and disappeared from their communities. Those who have disappeared deserve to be found—and if found they deserve an exhaustive investigation as to the cause of death, not one that is rushed to close a case file.
A recent and rather high-profile case was that of Selena Not Afraid who went missing on New Year’s Day of 2020 in Montana. Selena Not Afraid’s body was found on January 20th of that same year a mile away from where she disappeared. It’s important to note that the place where she was found had already been searched.
“There seems to be a direct correlation between the Man Camps [areas of temporary housing set up to accommodate mostly male workers during the construction of pipelines] and missing Indigenous women,” Felix said to me. These men are also traveling across state lines, making it harder to pin them down as a perpetrator if they are involved with a crime. The preliminary autopsy report of Not Afraid concluded that she died of hypothermia, but there have been no real answers as to how her body turned up in a location that had been explored previously.
Adding another layer of frustration to this already heartbreaking epidemic: the difficulty of reporting and tracking these cases. The criminal jurisdiction of crimes committed on tribal land depends on a number of factors: the race of the victim, the race of the offender, and the type of crime being committed. On top of this, the plea of the Indigenous community for federal and state officials to see their missing women as an epidemic is often turned down. Their reason for this? There simply is not enough data to prove these claims as true. In response to this, Annita Lucchesi, a doctoral intern at the Urban Indian Health Institute and a descendant of the Southern Cheyenne, is credited with creating one of the only up to date databases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in North America. Surprisingly, Lucchesi’s database shows that high perecentages of missing and murder cases happen on both reservations (where tribal jurisdiction applies) and in cities (where it does not). In fact, over 71% of Native people live in cities, where there are no conditional criminal jurisdiction measures but somehow the media and law enforcement continue to ignore most cases.
The MMIWG2S crisis boldly highlights the defective relationship between the United States federal government and Tribal sovereignty. Police handling and general public interest is often lacking when white bodies aren’t at the center of an investigation. The shortage of respect for Indigenous people has been made evident since the arrival of colonizers. It was solidified most recently in Rick Santorum’s remarks on April 23, 2021 at the Standing Up For Faith and Freedom Conference when he said that America was “birthed from nothing,” completely disregarding those who shared the traditional and Indigenous knowledge that kept colonizers alive when they first arrived at Turtle Island, and a slap in the face to all living Native American people.
In the face of this particular injustice, it’s important to remember the Indigenous women, girls, and those of the two spirit community not just as missing and murdered but as the radiant beings they are. We must also advocate for the amplification of these cases, the connection of Man Camps, and the significance of tribes creating their own comprehensive databases on those missing and murdered in their community. Those of us that are here, Indigenous and allies, can rally together to give a voice to the voiceless.
Some great resources courtesy of Lakota People’s Law Project:
Learn how to enter your missing Native loved ones’ information into the NamUs database
Tribal Community Response When a Woman is Missing: A Toolkit for Action
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
National Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
National Child Abuse Hotline/Childhelp: 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
Written by Kara Roselle Smith for Youth To The People