Missing and Murdered Native American Women: An Epidemic

A protestor in the ‘Greater Than Fear’ March 2018.  Photo by Lorie Shaull on Flickr – Creative Commons

Kara Lynn Mauai, member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, has been missing since November 8, 2019. This weekend, two months following her disappearance, her loved ones will conduct another search to find her remains. The cause of her disappearance, and whether it is crime related, have yet to be determined.  

The disappearance of Kara Lynn Mauai is representative of a much broader epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in the U.S. and Canada. Mauai is just one of thousands of Native American women and girls who are missing or murdered each year. In some areas of the U.S., Native American women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than the rest of the population. According to national crime data, over 5,000 Native American women or girls were missing in 2016. The exact number of these missing and murdered is undetermined because the federal government not only fails to allocate adequate resources to investigate the circumstances surrounding the missing and murdered women, it also does not provide a national database to compile the pertinent data.

A large number of murdered indigenous women were victims of sexual assault. The women fell victim to men within tribes as well as to non-native passersby. In fact, more than two-thirds of assailants were non-native men or white men. Particularly, it is the increase of pipeline installations across the U.S. that has proved to be most threatening to native women. The pipelines have brought the construction of  ‘man camps,’ or work-camp modular housing. These provide shelter for the predominantly male workers who construct the pipelines which often run through tribal land.

Local and tribal police are not prepared for the flood of outsiders entering tribal land and the resulting increase in sexual violence towards native women. The primary obstacle to resolving, or at least effectively investigating, these sexual assault cases is the lack of communication and coordination between tribal, local, and state police. This problem was compounded by a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that tribal police cannot arrest or prosecute non-native assailants. When non-natives are involved, the case is passed on to the federal government and FBI which reject or designate as “low precedence” two-thirds of the cases.

The crisis befalling Native American women is not relegated solely to the reservation. Outside the reservations and in cities, Native American women are at a higher risk of sexual violence and it is more likely that their assaults or murders will not be investigated. Jennifer White Bear, the mother of a victim to this epidemic, states: “To me the way I see it, what they’re doing, is just another native gone. One less Indian.” By not aggressively documenting, investigating and solving the cases of these missing women, some argue that the U.S. is committing  ‘state-induced genocide.’

In 2019 policy measures were implemented which seek to address the epidemic. Savanna’s Act was reinstated and the Non-Invisible Act and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative were introduced. Demonstrations and protests also took place in order to bring attention to those lost or murdered. However, more legislation, law enforcement, and criminal justice are necessary if there is to be a long-term resolution of an injustice which tragically affects so many Native American women and their families. Further, educating the non-native public about this crisis is of paramount importance. 

In an interview with MPR news, Ruth Buffalo, the first democratic Native American woman in the state legislature, noted that there must be a breakdown of stereotypes and implicit bias. There must be a grand transformation in the way U.S. citizens view and sexualize Native American women. The 2020 presidential election could be a turning point for missing and murdered Native American women if more public servants knowledgeable about the epidemic and willing to confront the problem are elected.

The extent of this crisis cannot be conveyed in the scope of one article. To learn more, the documentary film ‘When they were here,’ and the feature film ‘Wind River’ are both excellent resources.

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