Native American women in the United States experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the Nation: four out of five are expected to encounter violence in their lifetimes; one in three are raped in their lifetime; and the murder rates of Native women exceed ten times the national average in some tribal and urban communities. US authorities gather missing person statistics for every demographic except for Native American women. Although there is no accurate real-time data detailing the rates of missing and murdered indigenous women, communities on and off reservations maintain that the number is very high.
“It’s not a crime to be missing,” said Warren Silver, an analyst with the Statistics Canada agency. In fact, such an approach is rather common for both the United States and Canada and has proven to be unable to keep track of violent crimes against indigenous women.
Violence against women is a growing concern in North America, but no one seems to care. A flawed tribal court structure, little local law enforcement, and a lack of funding fail to protect indigenous women. They are more than TWICE as likely to face sexual-assault crimes as any other ethnic group. According to the factsheet presented by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, among 10 to 24 year-olds, homicide is the third leading cause of death American Indians and Alaska Natives. About 46% of Native American women have been raped, beaten, or stalked by an intimate partner. As reported by Rewire.News, nearly every Native American family has a story of a female relative who has gone missing or been murdered.
Although over the last year media support for indigenous populations in the United States and Canada has grown, decades of disproportionate murder and abduction rates among native women point to an unsettling trend of underlying disdain against Native Americans.
“She’s probably just out drinking somewhere and afraid to come home,” these were the words of a tribal police officer when Limberhand first reported her daughter missing on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. Unfortunately, it’s not the only case of such a devil-may-care attitude among tribal authorities. In 2013, when Malinda Limberhand tried to report her 21-year-old daughter Hanna Harris missing on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, tribal police dismissed her concerns insisting that Harris was likely out drinking during the July 4th weekend. Both girls were later found murdered. “Native women are often not seen as worthy victims. We first have to prove our innocence, that we weren’t drunk or out partying,” said Carmen O’Leary, executive director of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains. “We should never have a woman come into the office saying, ‘I need to learn more about Plan B for when my daughter gets raped,’” said Charon Asetoyer, a women’s health advocate on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, referring to the morning-after pill. “That’s what’s so frightening — that it’s more expected than unexpected. It has become a norm for young women.”
A 2016 National Institute of Justice report analyzing the findings of a 2010 study added momentum to the issue with data about the high rates of violence against Native people. The report was the first with specific data on the prevalence of homicide for women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as the potential causes. Yet it only offered a glimpse of the problem – between 2003 and 2014, just 18 states provided the information needed to show how many Native women were murdered within their borders.
According to the report, more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women (84.3%) experience violence in their lifetimes. Overall, more than 1.5 million American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime — 730,000 of them in 2015 alone.
Of intimate partner violence, 81.5% of Native victims were murdered by a current partner while 12% were murdered by a past partner. Arguments, jealousy and recent acts of violence preceded the homicide in two-thirds of the incidents, according to the report. “Homicides occur in women of all ages and among all races/ethnicities, but young, racial/ethnic minority women are disproportionately affected,” the report stated. According to the survey, 56% of 2,000 women surveyed have experienced sexual violence, over 90% of that group has experienced violence at the hands of a non-tribal member.
The report also speaks to the nation’s indifference to the dangerous forces that prey on indigenous women: few estimates are available to describe the prevalence of violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women and men. Moreover, these estimates are often based on local rather than national samples.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its own report on April 6, 2017. What do conclusion do you think they came to? Right. The GAO said federal agencies are “failing to collect data on Native trafficking victims”. As a result, “it's not possible to determine the extent of the problem”. “In certain circumstances, state or tribal law enforcement may have jurisdiction to investigate crimes in Indian country; therefore, these figures likely do not represent the total number of human trafficking-related cases in Indian country,” the GAO wrote in the report. It added that of the four agencies with investigative and prosecutorial powers in Indian Country, only the Bureau of Indian Affairs collects data on the tribal affiliation of a trafficking victim. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and the network of U.S. Attorneys across the nation either fail to collect the same information or only do so in limited circumstances, according to the report.Without a standing requirement to file national level reports of violent crimes or abductions unless the victim is a juvenile, many native women can simply go missing unnoticed.
In July, 2017, the new report appeared. That time it was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who took up the challenge. “The racial/ethnic differences in female homicide underscore the importance of targeting prevention and intervention efforts to populations at disproportionately high risk," the report stated. “Addressing violence will require an integrated response that considers the influence of larger community and societal factors that make violence more likely to occur.” The report only proved the facts that had already been known: native women suffer from the second-highest homicide rate in the United States after Non-Hispanic African Americans(4.4 and 4.3 per 100,000 population, respectively). It also showed that most Native victims of homicide are young. According to the data, 36.3 percent were between the ages of 18 and 29.
In the second report on the issue conducted in July 2017, the GAO said only 27 of 132 tribal law enforcement agencies (LEA) that responded to a survey initiated human trafficking investigations between 2014 to 2016. Of 61 major city agencies, 6 started similar investigations. “Tribal and major city LEA respondents indicated that unreported incidents and victims' reluctance to participate in investigations are barriers to identifying and investigating human trafficking in Indian country or of Native Americans,” the report stated.
While the U.S. authorities elaborated their reports, women continued to go missing. June 5, 2017, was the last time friends or family of Ashley Loring HeavyRunner recall seeing or hearing from her. She seemed to disappear without a trace from the Blackfeet Reservation near Browning, Glacier County, Montana. The details in her case are scant. The FBI recently (in March 2018) began investigating her disappearance, and the reward for information regarding her whereabouts has grown to $10,000, but those missing her say the response has been too slow – too little, too late. Officials confirm they have performed six searches and 60 interviews and that they have unnamed persons of interest in the case. But as of today, Ashley remains missing and her family still has no answers.
Her older sister Kimberly Loring thought of a promise she once made.
“When we were young, we were in the foster care system,” she told ABC News. “She told me, ‘Don’t leave me,’ and I told her, ‘I would never leave you, and if you were to get moved, I will find you.’”
“I don’t want to be an 80-year-old woman searching these mountains with my grandchildren,” Kimberly Loring said. “But there’s no choice, because if I give up, who’s going to look for her?”
Following that case Annita Lucchesi, a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, who used to teach Ashley Loring at the local community college in Browning, Montana, set out to create her own database of missing and murdered indigenous women by filing public record requests with local law enforcement agencies. “After doing some Googling, I realized nobody has the right number,” she said. So far she has documented more than 2,000 cases across both the U.S. and Canada the most of which occurred over the last 20 years. Lucchesi says she's shocked at how much data is missing. “And really, it's not just data,” she says. “That's someone's relative that's collecting dust somewhere and no one is being held accountable to remember or honor the violence that was perpetrated against her.”
In August, 2017, another disappearance occurred. That time it was a 22-year old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a pregnant member of the Spirit Lake Tribe who was tragically murdered. 5th October, 2017, Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-CA) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) introduced Savanna’s Act, a bill named in honor of the woman. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) called for improved federal crime data collection and the creation of a standardized protocol for responding to reports of missing and murdered Native women. “It’s time to give a voice to these voiceless women,” said Heitkamp during a speech from the Senate floor. “It’s time to bring their perpetrators to justice and give a voice to the families who are struggling even today, sometimes decades later, to understand how this can happen in America.” “Savanna’s death was an incredible tragedy, and, unfortunately, one that happens way too often to Native women,” Heitkamp said.
It promised to be the first step in bringing about a resolution to the issue with active engagement by the Federal government. Unfortunately, nothing concerning the bill has occurred since its introduction. Nevertheless, though late, some changes followed.
On January 20, 2018, in Seattle, Washington, 380 Native women (and 3,200 interested onlookers) stated their intent on Facebook to join Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women Washington (MMIW) by leading a Women’s March to call attention to the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women in the United States and Canada.
People of all ages who supported the MMIW movement traveled from all around to support the community of Indigenous families who have lost family members. Some came from as far as Idaho, Nevada and Montana. “I’m here for the entire movement and to raise awareness, because these women just disappear off the face of the earth,” said a woman from Beacon Hill. The attendees of the event, both Native and non, were encouraged to wear red, the color that represents the MMIW movement.
Soon after that, on January 29, 2018, Representatives Gina McCabe, Mia Gregerson, Melanie Stambaugh, Derek Stanford, Kristine Reeves, Mary Dye, Andrew Barkis, and Senator Maureen Walsh introduced HB-2951, to do something about the situation. HB-2951 requires that “the Washington state patrol must conduct a study to determine how to increase state criminal justice protective and investigative resources for reporting and identifying missing Native American women in the state.”
“There’s currently no comprehensive data collection system for reporting or tracking missing Native American women,” McCabe told. “That’s a travesty, and I know Washington can do better.” “By December 1, 2018, the state patrol must report to the legislature on the results of the study, including data and analysis of the number of missing Native American women in the state, identification of barriers in providing state resources to address the issue, and recommendations, including any proposed legislation that may be needed to address the problem.” The bill also tasks the Washington State Patrol with creating a list of missing Native American women in the state by June 2019, by working with tribal and non-tribal police agencies around the state.
“The place to start is by bringing the federal, state and federally recognized sovereign tribal governments together to ensure that everyone who goes missing is reported and listed in a central location,” McCabe said. “There seems like there’s this disconnect between local police and county police and tribal police and the FBI,” McCabe says. “My goal is to get everyone at the table.” Meanwhile, it is still vital for Native activists to continue to speak about this issue and keep pressure on Washington’s legislatures. And they definitely will.
While lawmakers consider changes at the law enforcement level, activists continue to push the issue at the local and, potentially, the national level. MMIW and other indigenous activists have been organizing protests and vigils for many years. The Women’s Memorial March takes place annually on Valentine’s Day in more than 22 communities across North America. In 2018 the action took place in Minneapolis, on February 13, 2018, hundreds gathered at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center to participate in an art build for the February 14th day of action for MMIW.
They also started the “Longest Walk” on February 16th in Blaine, Washington, making stops in Eastern Washington on their way to the capitol. “We need to stand united on all the issues Native Americans and America faces today. To do so we must have a strong society. Standing Rock proved we can come together to aid to each other. We must continue in that same spirit and halt the flow of drugs and violence into our communities to remain strong. Along the route we will help clean up Mother Earth. Victory shall dwell in the house of unity, to those that follow that spirit,” these are the words pronounced at the Opening Ceremony at Peach State Park, Blaine, WA.
“So many people don't understand that we do still struggle with colonization and domestic violence, and it's a topic that nobody wants to talk about,” Niki Zacherle, a member of the Confederated Colville Tribes, says.
Yet another Indigenous woman has gone missing in the Mountain West. Jermaine Charlo disappeared near a grocery store in Missoula, Montana. On June 15th, 23-year-old Jermaine Austin Charlo disappeared from the Missoula area and has not been seen since. Missoula Police Detective Guy Baker said that law enforcement agencies are now taking the extra step of reaching out to the public for help in finding the missing young woman. The 23-year-old is the 13th native woman to go missing in the state since January.
Do YOU want to help? Here’s how:
Encourage your legislators to support Savannah’s Act.
Get to know the tribes near you. Start by learning about them, then follow the social media accounts of local tribes to find out about what’s happening in their communities. Attend public events and get to know people.
Learn about domestic violence and support organizations that support victims. The National Domestic Violence Hotline launched the StrongHearts Native Helpline specifically for indigenous populations, they offer helpful information about supporting all domestic violence victims. You can also donate to the hotline here.