Unsolved: When Indigenous Women Go Missing

Image credits: Sydney Kim

LOS ANGELES — Mary Johnson, an indigenous woman from Washington, went missing in November of 2020, yet Seattle FBI only recently offered a reward for information about her disappearance, almost a year after her being reported missing. Gerry Davis, Johnson’s sister, said in an interview with CNN, “It started to feel like we were put on the back burner, still on the back burner now.” 

It should not take 10 months and a heartbroken community for law enforcement to care about the disappearance of one of its citizens. 

On Aug. 24 Gabby Petito called her mother for the last time before disappearing while visiting Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, where she had been vacationing with her fiancé Brian Laundrie. On Sept. 11, Gabby Petito’s family reported her missing after days of short texts then no communication at all. Just eight days after her disappearance was reported, authorities discovered her body, and Gabby Petito’s story flooded national headlines. 

Unfortunately, the feelings of hopelessness, loss and grief that Gabby’s family and friends feel is a harsh reality for many Indigenous communities across the country. Native women are disappearing en masse, yet public interest seems to focus solely on disappearances of white women.

Without diminishing the tragic death of Gabby Petito, the media must begin focusing on a systemic issue: the blatant disregard for missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

Reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous women has been a widely underrepresented issue in the media for decades. The Urban Indian Health Institute found that the third leading cause of death for American Indian/Alaska, Native women was murder.The third leading cause of death among white women? Chronic lower respiratory disease. Over the past two decades, Indigenous people comprised 21% of all homicides in Wyoming, even though they only make up 3% of the population.

Indigenous women suffer disproportionately high murder rates compared to their white counterparts and receive disproportionately low media attention. According to the University of Wyoming’s Survey and Analysis Center, “Only 30% of Indigenous homicide victims had newspaper media coverage, compared to 51% of white homicide victims. Indigenous female victims had the least, with only 18% coverage.” On a national scale, in a survey of 71 cities, the National Crime Information Center reported, in 2016, “there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases.” A less than 3% reporting record. Which begs the question: why is violence in these communities so underreported? 

Domestic crime rates and concentration in rural communities partially account for higher violence and lower media coverage. The smaller population size and ruralness of Indigenous communities may make them more susceptible to silent crime, given that fewer police resources are allocated to these communities. These missing persons cases may also be connected to drug cartels and human traffickers, which prey on vulnerable and marginalized communities. Concentration in rural communities partially explains why the US media narrative perpetually excludes Indigenous women, however issues of jurisdiction, patterns of drug dealing and structures of human trafficking contribute significantly to the systematic underreporting of disappearances and murders against women in the Indigenous community. 

JURISDICTION AND THE COURTS

In an interview with Jair Peltier, a USC Doctoral Student, he noted that Indigenous jurisdiction varies by tribe, but one consistent quality is that crimes committed on a reservation by non-tribal people cannot be prosecuted by tribal courts and must be sent to federal court. Tribal courts are only allowed to govern their own people on their land, not outside individuals that come and wreak havoc. 

Abigail Echo-Hawk, chief research officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board said, “This maze of jurisdiction that exists — that is, who does what investigations and who’s responsible for what — is part of this system of inequity.” These blurred lines and gaps in jurisdiction leaves the question of who will investigate these kidnappings? This robbery of governance is an insult to the authority of Indigenous people and their courts on their land. 

Tribal prosecutor TaNeel Filesteel stated, “At one point the Fort Belknap Tribal Government had five law enforcement officers patrolling a territory equivalent to two-thirds the size of the state of Rhode Island, 7,000 citizens protected by five officers.” Scenarios like this make it much easier to kidnap someone with no evidence or trace. Not only are indigenous communities consistently under-enforced, but the insufficient number of available officers are further limited by “an almost total lack of protocols, mandated training and coordination among law enforcement systems.” Perpetual lack of funding, hiring and adequate training of law enforcement “has ensnared victims in ongoing cycles of exploitation.”

No comprehensive government body currently protects Indigenous people because federal and state authorities remain incapable, or unwilling, to relinquish authority that rightfully belongs to Indigenous people. WSAC reports that “50% of Indigenous homicides between 1999 and 2017 are missing from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports.” Disorganized collaboration between these governing bodies affects the outcomes for Indigenous peoples’ lives, and the families and communities after these lives have been taken and abused.  Coordination between these governing bodies must be mended if there is to be any change in the safety of Indigenous lives and livelihoods. 

SUBSTANCE ABUSE

Opioids and other addictive drugs have also become an increasingly prevalent issue in many Indigenous communities. Typically, reservations are concentrated in rural localities, so drug dealers commute from urban cities to distribute their supply. Drug dealers can deliberately exploit these areas, where competition in the narcotic trade is limited, to sell at an extremely high price. According to Peltier, the drug trade in indigenous communities harms residents twice over: once by price gouging, and second, and more destructively, by introducing addictive narcotics to these communities, leaving Indigenous people, especially women, more vulnerable to violence and kidnapping. 

Individuals under the influence of drugs may be more likely to be targeted for assault and less likely to defend themselves against perpetrators. Furthermore, communities suffering from widespread addiction often face diminished or delayed reporting rates. The prevalence of substance abuse in Indigenous communities may also deter families from reporting because they could think that their missing loved one is “just coming down from a high” or “is out doing drugs.” 

Furthermore, drug influx influences how authorities and the media perceive missing or murdered Indigenous persons. WSAC reported that “[n]egative character framing was in 16% of the articles about Indigenous people. None of the articles about missing white people included negative character framing.” This negative framing materializes in reports about what drugs were found in the body during the autopsy instead of focusing on the situational factors that led up to the death itself. Focusing on the victim’s drug use, rather than the violent crime itself, promotes negative stereotypes about the Indigenous community and dilutes the efficacy of criminal investigations.

THE CRISIS OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING

The most common cause for missing and murdered Indigenous women is human trafficking. More than half of Indigenous Women experience sexual violence (56.1%) This staggering statistic of abuse and violence plays a vital part in human and sex trafficking in these communities. In 2015, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) found “an estimated 40 percent of women who are victims of sex trafficking identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, or First Nations.” When being sex trafficked, like any woman, they are stripped of their value, confidence and worth. A study done by NCAI Policy Research Center concluded 9 out of 10 trafficking victims suffer neurological symptoms and depression following sex trafficking and “52% had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at the time of the interview— a rate that is in the range of PTSD among combat veterans.” 

The kidnapping, sexual abuse and senseless murders of Indigenous women boils down to an issue of respect. According to Peltier, many Indigenous peoples are matriarchal, and women are often the life givers and heads of the households. Non-tribal assaults on women attack the very essence of Indigenous culture.

At the root of this disrespect against Indigenous women and culture lies the seed of colonial supremacy, the idea of conquering and owning Indigenous women as if they were land. Early European settlers viewed Indigenous women as exotic and sexually fascinating, a blatant objectification of these women and obvious contradiction to their immense cultural and political value within their tribes. This hypersexualization caused many European men to perceive Indigenous women as immoral. Colonial norms of hypersexualization and dehumanization began the cycle of systemic exploitation of Indigenous women that we see exemplified today in sex trafficking of Indigenous women. 

Women abducted into sex trafficking are sold off to the highest bidder, and sometimes when not compliant they could end up dead. In New Mexico, Indigenous women only comprise “about 11% of the state’s population, [yet]they account for nearly a quarter of trafficking victims,” and Native American women in South Dakota represent 40% of sex trafficking victims, despite Native Americans making up only 8% of the population. This is the sad reality for many other states as well. These jarring statistics are not just numbers, they are real women that have been affected in all aspects of life by trafficking.   

From the first settlers, institutions and norms designed to benefit white Americans have stripped the respect that Indigenous women deserve. They are the backbone of their communities yet they consistently go missing and sometimes are never to be found. 

“Growing up I didn’t have the opportunity to know who my Grandma was. Her life was taken too soon, and her body was found on the Rez. I know as much of my Grandma as the crime that took her life,” said Fawna Friday, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe and Granddaughter of Elsie Louise Hungry Fowler.

Elsie Louise Hungry Fowler deserved better. Fawna should not face the same fears as her grandmother. The simple request to not be objectified, kidnapped or killed, but to be respected, should be honored, recognized and upheld. Indigenous women deserve better in every way. 

This starts with reporting. Indigenous women are continuously disregarded, and historically the media has remained complacent. This must stop. Media organizations must report all peoples equally, from Gabby Peptito to Mary Johnson to Elsie Louise Hungry Fowler. They all deserve to be represented, reported and respected. 

The next step is to clarify jurisdiction. Indigenous people should be able to try crimes committed on their land and against their people, despite who may have committed the crime. The US government has taken steps to address some of these issues, however, their steps have been less than exhaustive.

In 2019, the Trump Administration introduced the Task Force on Missing and Murdered AI/ANs, also recognized as Operation Lady Justice (OLJ). This “Task Force aims to enhance the criminal justice system and address the legitimate concerns of AI/AN communities, regarding missing and murdered people – specifically missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.” In 2021, the Biden administration created the Missing and Murdered Unit under the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs

On the surface, these organizations seem like big strides in the right direction, but as Gerry Davis endured the tortuous process of attempting to achieve justice for her missing sister, she was made to feel irrelevant, like her story and her sister didn’t matter. Although the formulation of this unit and task force is admirable, what does it matter if it makes no difference in the lives of whom it matters most?

WSAC suggests steps toward respecting and preserving the dignity of those missing and murdered: “Develop consistent protocols and data systems for MMIPs to inform both law enforcement and families. Pay particular attention to documenting tribal affiliation in official records,” and “Create an Indigenous advocacy position/response team to help families navigate the reporting and investigation process.”  This advocacy would help “reduce the emotional burden for families of repeating incident details to multiple agencies.” Lastly, to “[r]aise community awareness about the prevalence of MMIP, contributing risk and protective factors, and available resources.” 

These are the first steps of many in the fight for protecting and justly reporting cases of Indigenous women, but there is so much more to be done.

To conclude this article I’d like to acknowledge that all of the present-day United States is occupying Indigenous land. I want to recognize and honor the people and land that I currently live and study on which is that of the “Tongva people and their neighbors: (from North to South) the Chumash, Tataviam, Kitanemuk, Serrano, Cahuilla, Payomkawichum, Acjachemen, Ipai-Tipai, Kumeyaay, and Quechan peoples.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of resources to help inform which were accumulated with the help of Jair Peltier.

Organizations: 

National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center 

Sovereign Bodies Institute 

Articles: 

Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women in Canada and Governmental Response

Combatting Violence Against Indigenous Women

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Faith Hotchkiss

Faith Hotchkiss is a junior at the University of Southern California pursuing a double major in International Relations (Global Business) and French. She is enthusiastic about the partnerships between public, private, and nonprofit sectors and their work towards global change. Specifically areas with regard to racial and gender equality, human rights, and climate change through the means of marketing and global communication.

fhotchki@usc.edu