Why are there so many missing Indigenous women?


Credit: Tom Ford / The Independent

The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, also known as MMIW, has been brought to light in recent years thanks to awareness campaigns orchestrated by Native American organizations.


A study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that Indigenous women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than other ethnicities. 84% of Native women experience violence in their lifetime. On top of that, Indigenous women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than the average woman, with 67% of these assaults being by non-Natives. Indigenous women go missing at alarming rates, and although obtaining data is difficult, there are estimates of over 5,712 missing or unsolved murder cases from 2018 alone.


The disproportionate rate of murder for Native women is due to a variety of causes. Often, transient workers living in temporary housing units near Tribal lands are at fault, with Indigenous fetishization as another contributing factor. There is also a pattern of police officers dismissing missing person reports by saying that these women were runaways rather than victims.


But all things considered, tribal jurisdiction laws are most to blame. The Supreme Court ruled in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978) that tribal courts do not have jurisdictional power over non-Natives. So, although most violence committed against Indigenous women is because of non-Indigenous men, tribes cannot prosecute them for their crimes on reservations. When non-Indigenous individuals violate laws on native land it’s up to either local law enforcement or the FBI to take action. That being said, state and county authorities do not have criminal jurisdiction on reservations, and the FBI doesn’t keep data on missing Indigenous women. As a result, most cases of murder committed by non-tribal members go uninvestigated. With extensive limitations on both tribal and federal law enforcement, non-Native perpetrators slip through the cracks without consequence.


The United States government has attempted to address the MMIW issue in the past. The 1994 Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in 2013 to expand protection for Indigenous women living on reservations. The 2013 version gave Indigenous tribes jurisdiction over domestic-violence cases committed against Native Americans on Tribal land. This would allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Native perpetrators in domestic violence cases. However, this only applied to married couples and failed to protect Indigenous women from other non-Native assailants. In 2019, the House of Representatives passed a new reauthorization allowing Tribal jurisdiction to include non-Natives suspected of sexual violence and stalking. Unfortunately, it failed in the Senate because Republican Senators opposed the idea of barring stalkers and abusive partners from buying guns.


Credit: Native Women's Wilderness

Since the U.S government and the police have consistently failed Indigenous women, many grassroots Native groups have taken matters into their own hands. Native American leaders have begun building and maintaining community databases for missing Indigenous women as well as spreading their stories on social media through the hashtags #MMIW and #NoMoreStolenSisters. Many tribes have organized marches for legislative change and vigils for victims that have still not been found. Red is the official color of the #MMIW campaign, which has significance to Indigenous culture. The organization known as Native Women’s Wilderness describes it best: “In various tribes, red is known to be the only color spirits see. It is hoped that by wearing red, we can call back the missing spirits of our women and children so we can lay them to rest.”


Resources to learn more about violence against Indigenous women and #MMIW:

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