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    Saturday, April 01, 2023

    Missing and murdered Indigenous woman, a disturbing and enduring issue

    In August of 2021, social media was abuzz and cable news spent hours covering the case of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman from New York who went missing while on a cross-country trip with her fiance. Petito was later found murdered.

    For many Native Americans and people of color, the story was another frustrating example of the disparity that exists in media coverage and what some have referred to as “missing white woman syndrome.”

    Meanwhile, statistics show that a real problem nationwide, as well as in Canada and Latin America, is the staggering number of murdered or missing Indigenous woman and Alaska natives. Murder is the third-leading cause of death of the two groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On some reservations in the U.S., Indigenous women are murdered at a ten times higher rate than other groups.

    Statistics on the rate of murders in urban areas, where more than 70 % of Indigenous women live in the U.S., are harder to come by. According to the National Crime Information Center in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing person’s data base only logged 116 of those cases.

    The faces associated with those cases are ubiquitous on various social media sites with the hashtag #MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women). Numerous grassroots organizations have sprung up across the country to address what many believe to be an epidemic that is garnering too little attention. The symbol adopted for the movement is a red hand print over the mouth, meaning “we will not be silenced.”

    Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in the county, addressed the Petito case in remarks during a press conference in September of 2021. While sympathetic to Petitio’s case, Haaland referenced how she has seen the many Native American faces appear on posters from families seeking missing women and girls.

    “I see a mother. I see my auntie or my nieces or even my own child. So I feel that every woman and every person who is in this victimized place deserves attention and deserves to be cared about,” she said at the time.

    New England take note

    Angelina Casanova, the manager for national legislative affairs for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said while the epidemic is more prevalent in other parts of the country, New England states are not immune to the issue and should take note.

    While the Petito case gripped the nation, Casanova wondered how many people remember the story of Jalahjia Finklea, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts who disappeared from her Boston home in 2020, a day before her 18th birthday. Finklea, who was pregnant, was found dead in a field in Florida. The suspect in her abduction and murder was later shot and killed.

    “So yes, this does affect tribes in the northeast, just not on the scale of some of the other tribes. In general, violence against Native women is not a new phenomenon, it’s systemic,” Casanova said.

    Asked why she thinks crimes against Indigenous women don’t get the attention they deserve, Casanova referenced the Gabby Petito case.

    “You have a young white girl from middle class family who was living the American dream, on vacation with her boyfriend. You juxtapose that with a Native American women who may come from poor communities, maybe unhoused… who maybe did not graduate from high school,” Casanova said.

    Indigenous women are less likely to “see their images plastered in the news for a month” and as a result get impression that their lives are not as valued as others, Casanova said.

    “This is very frustrating for us. Many of the cases are either not investigated, poorly investigated or remain unsolved, which forces families to search for their loved ones on their own,” she said. “These cases receive little or no attention, further perpetuating Native American marginalization.”

    Casanova said there is a long held bias of Native Americans as alcoholics, or drug addicted, uneducated and a nuisance to society, therefore their lives are not valuable and not worth the resources,” she said.

    The epidemic of Native American women being assaulted or murdered or abducted gets hidden in the larger statistics, she said.

    Historically, Casanova said part of the problem was outdated government policies that barred tribal authorities from arresting non-native perpetrators. A 2016 National Institute of Justice survey of Native American women revealed that four in five Native American women, or 84.3%, had experienced serious violence in their lifetime and more than half had suffered sexual violence. Upwards of 90 % of the violence cases involved a non-native attacker.

    The federal Violence Against Women Act, when it was reauthorized in 2013, for the first time gave Native American tribes jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute domestic violence cases involving non-native offenders on reservations.

    There have been grassroots movements for years to address the issue but a lack of funding, which Casanova said is finally starting to get some attention with the appointment of Haaland to Secretary of the Interior under President Joe Biden in 2021.

    Missing and Murdered Unit

    On April 1, 2021, shortly after her appointment, Haaland announced the formation of a new Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services (BIA-OJS) “to provide leadership and direction for cross-departmental and inter-agency work involving missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

    In her comments at the time, Haaland said “violence against Indigenous people is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades. Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated.”

    The MMU, headquartered in Haaland’s home state of New Mexico, has since established 17 offices located throughout the nation across 12 states. Each office is staffed by at least one agent dedicated to solving missing and murdered cases.

    A spokesperson for Haaland said as of this month, the MMU has investigated a total of 503 missing and murdered persons cases and has solved 68 missing persons cases and five murder cases.

    The Bureau of Indian Affairs also additionally launched a new website dedicated to solving missing and murdered cases in Indian Country. The website is BIA.GOV/MMU.

    The MMU has enabled the department to expand its collaborative efforts with other agencies, such as working to enhance the Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System and is developing strategic partnerships with additional stakeholders such as the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Units, the FBI Forensic Laboratory, the US Marshals Missing Child Unit and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

    “ The MMU is currently working with federal and Tribal partners to examine how many of the 2,700 cases of Murder and Non-negligent Homicide Offenses in the federal government’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program remain unsolved,” Tyler Cherry, Haaland spokesperson, said.

    Casanova credits Haaland, a member of the Pueblo Laguna tribe, with raising awareness of the issue and thinks it will take the federal government working with Native people “who know best how to address this problem and protect their communities.”


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