Missing and murdered: Act now for comprehensive protection of indigenous women and girls
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Ask the average American about #MMIWG, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. That’s because over 95 percent of cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – the meaning behind the hashtag – were never covered by national or international media. It’s a hidden epidemic. Tribes and states are taking action. A few members of Congress have proposed bills. It’s time for the rest of Congress to pay attention.

How bad is this epidemic? According to recent estimates, three out of five Native women have been assaulted in their lifetime. Over one in three will be raped in their lifetime. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average. And homicide is now the third leading cause of death for Native girls and young women aged 15 to 24. Sixteen-year-old Selena Not Afraid and 23-year-old Jade Wagon are among this year’s most recent vanished.

The Society of Indian Psychologists’ point to the central failing that: “NO accountability system exists to accurately document the missing or lost lives of Indigenous Women and Girls.” For example, of the 5,712 known cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, only 116 were logged in the DOJ database. This lack of data means violent crime statistics are grossly underestimated.

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In addition to the data crisis, offenders often face zero consequences due to complex jurisdictional issues between tribal, state, and federal governments. This is especially true in cases of violence against women.

The vast majority of perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault against American Indian women are non-Indian. The federal government typically has jurisdiction over these matters, often leaving only the FBI to investigate and the majority of these crimes go unprosecuted. Even if tribal law enforcement were able to respond, the need is too great with too few resources. It is estimated that there are about 2.3 full-time law enforcement officers for every 1,000 American Indians in Indian country.

Despite these obstacles, tribes are creating solutions within their jurisdictional purview as there is no comprehensive response by the U.S. One example is the cross-deputization of law enforcement officers and coordinating evidence collection. The Cherokee Nation Marshal Service cross-deputized with over 50 municipal, county, state, and federal agencies to ensure better, faster responses for protecting Native peoples.

When others did not respond to the lack of data, Cheyenne descendant and student, Annita Hetoevėhotohke'e Lucchesi did. She began to file hundreds of FOIA requests to gather information and create an MMIWG database, now housed through the Sovereign Bodies Institute. In 2017, the Urban Indian Health Institute began a multi-pronged methodology study on MMIWG in urban areas to determine how law enforcement agencies were collecting data and found that stories covered in the media and in tribal communities did not map on to each other.

State governments are also taking initiative. Many states passed bills in 2019 to begin to address MMIWG, such as Arizona, Washington, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana, with more states proposing bills, such as Utah and Wyoming. The bills allow for the development of task forces, identifying jurisdictional loopholes and gaps in data collection and law enforcement, funding liaison positions with law enforcement, and developing better data on MMIWG.

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But only federal action will close the gaps across state lines.

Savanna’s Act in 2017 (#NotInvisible) sought to provide training to law enforcement, develop guidelines on responding to MMIWG cases, streamline accurate reporting, and motivate outreach to tribes. The Senate passed the Act in 2018, and it moved to the House of Representatives in 2019, but has stalled there since. In recent months, the Bridging Agency Data Gaps and Ensuring Safety (BADGES) for Native Communities Act was introduced in the House and Senate, but similarly has stalled since.

As Native psychologist-researchers, although we are keenly cognizant of the critical need to address grief and trauma, we are also aware that Native girls’ and women’s psychological healing cannot take place without first ensuring their physical safety. That’s why we need the federal government to finally support sovereignty, voice, and control of tribal communities. That includes (1) increased financial resources, cultural competence trainings, and law enforcement personnel; (2) a single and accurate database of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls; and (3) increased intergovernmental communication, collaboration, and coordination.

We need to unify our efforts by supporting the bills already introduced in Congress. The time to act is now.

Melissa Tehee, J.D., Ph.D, is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and assistant professor of psychology at Utah State University with research focused on the well-being of Indigenous peoples. Kee Straits, Ph.D. (Quechua) is a licensed clinical psychologist and CEO of a health research and program evaluation consulting firm, TLC Transformations, serving tribal communities in New Mexico.