Nearly 400 years later, it's time to recognize tribal sovereignty

Nearly 400 years later, it's time to recognize tribal sovereignty
© Getty Images

Visiting my grandparents on the Tohono O’odham Nation keeps me rooted in my peoples’ history. As I drive through the beautiful Sonoran desert, my gratitude for family is simultaneously flooded by memories of people and lands stolen from tribal communities. Thanksgiving is a fraught holiday for First Nations. But each year, I also confront a deep, personal pain. In June 2009, my daughter, Rhia Danae Almeida, was sexually assaulted and murdered.

She was only 7 years old.

While dozens of families share similar pain from the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), I suffered in silence for almost nine years. It wasn’t until recently that I resolved to no longer be a victim without a voice.

ADVERTISEMENT

From Indigenous Peoples’ Day to Halloween, the past month has been filled with headlines critiquing the United States’ history and the commercialization, objectification and stereotyping of indigenous communities, particularly women. As we reckon with the violent colonization of the United States, it seems only right that we also recommit this Thanksgiving to protecting indigenous rights every day of the year by giving tribal communities the resources and tools we need to seek justice for our families.

My story differs from many cases of MMIWG. Rhia’s assailant committed his crime off the reservation. This simple, seemingly arbitrary fact opened up a world of outside resources denied to families whose loved ones are killed on a reservation. I had access to counseling and investigative resources to bring her killer to justice and find help processing my grief. Four years after her death, Rhia’s assailant was convicted to life without parole. I had closure, but many families suffer without answers.

Our tribal police departments are significantly under-resourced and historically lacked authority to prosecute non-tribal members who feel emboldened to prey on native women in our homes and on our lands. The lack of consistent data collection and reporting between tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies means we don’t even have a full tally of cases.

The latest investigation of public records by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) identified 506 unique cases of MMIWG across 71 cities nationwide. The institute warned this is a conservative estimate, given that nearly two-thirds of records pertained to cases occurring between 2010-2018. By also tracking media reports and speaking to families, UIHI identified 153 cases of MMIWG that don’t exist in any law enforcement records.

To give a sense of scale to both the potential breadth of cases and inconsistency of data, the National Crime Information Center received 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaskan Native women and girls in 2016. Only 116 of those cases were included in the Department of Justice missing persons database.

ADVERTISEMENT

While I reject the myth-making of Thanksgiving, I can appreciate the spirit of giving thanks for Arizona’s passage of landmark legislation to establish a statewide task force to standardize how agencies track and collect data on MMIWG. In September, Minnesota successfully established a similar task force, and Wisconsin has introduced a proposal to follow suit.

To date, Minnesota joins New Mexico, Montana, Arizona, California, Wyoming and Nebraska in making a public commitment to investigate how local governments repeatedly failed to protect native women and identify solutions to prevent future violence. Finding justice in individual cases, however, also requires federal investments in tribal governments and respecting our sovereignty to prosecute crimes committed by non-tribal members on our lands. 

In 2016, the National Institute of Justice found 97 percent of native women reported violence at the hands of a non-native perpetrator. That’s why Congress’ 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to expand tribal police authority to prosecute some cases of domestic violence perpetrated by non-tribal members was so important. 

Since the government shutdown in December 2018, however, the reauthorization of VAWA funding has been held hostage and, while Congress’ ability to find common ground remains uncertain, a conversation about further expanding tribal authority remains a pilot project dream.

The era of colonization that ensued after the first Thanksgiving most certainly ignored tribal sovereignty. Nearly 400 years later, it’s only just that the United States would recognize our most basic human right to pursue accountability for the killing of our loved ones. 

Until indigenous families no longer face the grief of confronting who is missing from their holiday tables, I invite everyone to join me at the real Thanksgiving table — where we fight for justice for native women.

Elayne Gregg is part of the Tohono O'odham, Akimel O'odham and Inupiaq peoples, an advocate for indigenous peoples’ rights and a member of Indivisible Tohono, a grassroots group that engages in voter rights and civic activities throughout her Arizona community. Follow on Twitter @Indivisible_TO.