Indigenous women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average; homicide is one of the leading causes of death. For women of color, the numbers are just as horrifying: Nearly 40% of the 250,000 women and girls documented as missing as of 2020 were people of color, despite making up just 16% of the overall population. Yet, many Americans live in complete ignorance about it.
Most media outlets rarely cover murdered or missing BIPOC, and despite the fact that President Joe Biden signed an executive order in 2021 aimed at addressing the issue, it’s been grassroots groups that have moved the needle.
“[It’s] a crisis hiding in plain sight," Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, chair of the U.S. House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said at a hearing Thursday.
The panel heard from families of missing and murdered women of color and detailed their ongoing frustration over the failure to get the attention of law enforcement and sufficient media coverage.
Shawn Wilkinson’s daughter, Akia, went missing in Baltimore in 2017 when she was eight months pregnant. Wilkinson says police only began to take the case seriously after a month when no baby was reported born in any nearby hospitals.
“The epidemic of missing persons of color is not a new topic, but one that has been dismissed because society does not care about us,” Wilkinson said.
Natalie Wilson, founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, told lawmakers that advocates realize that not every missing-person case will receive national attention, but added that cases of women of color get barely a blip on the screen.
“We can all name Gabby Petito, Natalee Holloway, Chandra Levy, and many other white women who have gone missing. But can any of you name a person of color that has garnered national media coverage?" Wilson asked. “We want our missing to be household names, too.”
The history of brutality against Indigenous women and children began with the colonial conquest of Europeans to the “New World” over 500 years ago and persists today.
One of the issues faced by tribal nations is the lack of law enforcement. Tribal officials are working within extremely restricted jurisdictions. They’re unable to bring charges to non-Native Americans who commit crimes on tribal lands, often leaving families in Indian Country to take on the burden of searching for missing loved ones on their own.
Another issue that continues to perpetuate violence on tribal land are industries such as mining, logging, and fossil fuels, which bring an influx of transient male workers to rural areas, often near reservations, where they live in “man camps.”
As Greenpeace reports, in North Dakota, the Bakken “oil boom” brought thousands of workers—along with a surge in violent crime and aggravated assault.
“Many tribes do not have jurisdiction over non-Native offenders, which a majority of these oil workers are,” said Angel Charley, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, based in New Mexico. “We know that when these man camps or temporary establishments are created, that there is an increase in violence, and particularly sexual violence, against our Native women.”
Charley urged lawmakers to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. The new law is part of the proposed 2022 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). For the first time ever, it includes a “tribal title,” a provision that gives tribal courts jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Native offenders—sexual assault, sex trafficking, stalking, and child abuse, as well as obstructing justice and assaulting tribal law enforcement officers—and surprisingly, the bill appears to have enough Republican support to become law.
Pamela Foster, a member of the Navajo Nation, told the panel about the day in 2016 when her two children—nine-year-old daughter, Ashlynne, and 11-year-old son, Ian—were kidnapped on the reservation while waiting for the bus. Foster’s son was lucky enough to escape; her daughter was murdered.
Foster said local law enforcement refused to issue an Amber Alert until her son was found by an elderly couple as he was wandering along the road.
“Since the [kidnapping] happened on the reservation, the resources that I needed weren’t available for her to start the search,” she said. “It took her death to start something.”
Foster began pressuring local and federal authorities to include access to AMBER alerts on Native lands. In 2018, Congress passed the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act, paving the way for tribal families to access state AMBER Alert plans.
After years of pressure from local Native American advocates, on Feb. 24, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a law aimed at ensuring more effective coordination among law enforcement agencies when it comes to cases involving missing or slain Native American women.
A large group of family members whose loved ones have either gone missing or been murdered flanked the governor while she signed the law during an emotional ceremony at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
“Not one more tragedy. Not one more family ripped apart. Not one more excuse about why it's difficult—particularly in Indigenous communities—to do right by the women, their families, and every missing, murdered, and at-risk person,” the governor vowed.
As of January, there were 946 active missing persons and 20 unidentified persons reported across New Mexico in the National Crime Information Center. But Native American advocates say that the total number of missing or slain Indigenous people is largely unknown, as federal databases do not contain comprehensive information.
The New Mexico law allocated $1 million for the hiring and training of one or more specialists, and another $1 million to implement an online portal for electronically cataloging missing persons cases.
Other states, including California, Oregon, and Washington, have approved studies of the problem or allocated more funding for tribes.