- Emily Moran
Missing and murdered Indigenous women: A silent epidemic
TW: Violence and Trauma Connected to Racism and Racial Conflict
In light of the recent coverage of the missing person’s case of Gabby Petito, questions resurfaced about the lack of media coverage given to missing and murdered women from minority communities, especially Indigenous women. The massive and overwhelming amount of coverage of Petito’s murder was one of the main reasons it was solved so quickly by law enforcement. The media is a powerful tool for solving and increasing public interest; however, for Indigenous peoples, this tool is nonexistent.
In 2016, the Urban Indian Health Institute conducted a study on missing and murdered Indigenous women in 71 cities across 29 states. The results are startling: of 5,712 missing person reports of Indigenous women, only 116 were logged in the Department of Justice database National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (“NamUs”). There are also discrepancies between data in NamUs and the data logged by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“NCMEC”). NamUs and NCMEC may have the same missing person listed as native in one database but they can be listed as non-native in the other. In addition, NCMEC is missing over 30 names that are on the NamUs database.
Annita Lucchesi, a researcher on missing Indigenous people created the Missing and Murdered Indigenous peoples database (“MMIP Database”) through the Sovereign Bodies Institute to fill the gap left by NamUs and NCMEC. The MMIP Database logs cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people of all genders and contains detailed information about their tribal affiliation, Indigenous name and translation, birth-date, age, children and if there are other missing family members. The database also gives information about the perpetrator, the violent incident, the location and if there has been any police or judicial response.
It is law enforcement’s responsibility to report correct statistics relating to missing persons of all people; however, there are barriers to government agencies’ ability to keep correct records. The main reasons for the lack of reporting are racial misclassification, bad relations between law enforcement and Indigenous populations, poor recordkeeping, jurisdictional barriers to justice, racial bias in the media and a lack of ties between the media and Indigenous communities. The media’s portrayal of violence in Indigenous communities mainly centers on reservation-based conflicts which perpetuate stereotypes of tribal lands filled with brutality. This type of media portrayal causes these themes to permeate into the American consciousness and impact the way law enforcement responds to missing and murdered indigenous women.
Petito went missing in Wyoming and received massive media attention. The Indigenous population in Wyoming is only 3%, but the homicide rate for Indigenous people between 2000 and 2020 was 21%. Only 18% of Indigenous women’s murders were even publicized in newspaper media coverage. In Wyoming, 76% of missing white people were the subject of an article in newspapers or other media sources compared to 42% of missing Indigenous people. In addition, 57% of missing Indigenous people had an article written about them only after they had been found dead, with no article discussing their missing person status during their life. No white people had an article reporting their death without an article discussing their missing person status. 16% of the articles written about Indigenous missing persons contained negative character framing compared to 0% of the articles about white people. The statistics above outline the large disparity in media coverage between white people and Indigenous people who go missing.
Progress is slowly being made through legislative action. In 2019, by executive order, President Trump created Operation Lady Justice (“OLJ”) to improve law enforcement response to missing and murdered Indigenous people and data collection. The main purpose of OLJ is to develop model protocols for unsolved cases, work with Tribal organizations, and identify best practices for law enforcement response. Further, The Not Invisible Act of 2019, passed in 2020, created an advisory committee composed of law enforcement, tribal leaders, federal partners, service providers and survivors of violence to make recommendations to the DOJ and Department of Interior. The recommendations include identifying and responding to reports of missing Indigenous women, developing legislative and administrative changes, tracking and reporting data, and working with Tribal-state-federal groups. In 2021, the Department of Interior also created the Missing and Murdered unit to build on the Not Invisible Act. This unit expanded on Operation Lady Justice and the Not Invisible Act to review unsolved cases and work alongside the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Tribal investigations to find justice for missing and murdered Indigenous people.
The fight is not nearly over. Murder is still the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women aged 10 to 24. A red hand print across the mouth and nose and the hashtag #Nomorestolensisters have come to symbolize the missing Indigenous women whose voices can no longer be heard and the silence of the media and law enforcement about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous women epidemic.