5,712 – that was the number of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women, girls, and two-spirit people, reported by the National Crime Information Center in 2016. However, only 116 cases were logged in the U.S. Department of Justice database of missing persons. A striking difference that was (and still is) most likely caused by a lack of communication between local, state, federal, and tribal jurisdictions, poor record-keeping, underreporting, and racial misclassification. While law enforcement, institutions, and the media keep arguing, Native women and girls keep disappearing.
Violence is undeniably a part of the colonization and its legacy that still exists in the shape of historical trauma and grief. This often results in a higher vulnerability for Native women. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that murder is the third-leading cause of death among Native women. It has also been recognized that more than 1 in 2 Native women will be victims of sexual violence in their lifetime, and more than 1 in 3 will be raped. The risk of rape or sexual assault is 2.5 times higher for Native women than the rest of the country, and perpetrators are more likely to be non-Native. These figures, reported by the Urban Indian Health Institute, depict a tragic ongoing crisis.
The Tribal Law and Order Act and the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 have focused the government attention on reservation-based Native women who are systematically abused and have little or no resources to seek justice for themselves and their families. Very little is known about Native women living in urban settings, even though they represent the majority of Native women in the country. Some light on it has been shed by a joint investigation of the Urban Indian Health Institute and the Division of Violence Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010. A comprehensive sexual violence survey has been administered to Seattle, Washington, where a large urban Indian population of approximately 44,500 people lives. The majority of the participants were homeless, poor, and/or lived in very rough conditions. Of the 148 Native women interviewed, 94% had been raped or coerced; 70% reported that the first time they were sexually assaulted was by being raped or coerced, and the other 30% reported other forms of contact as their first instance of sexual assault—unwanted kissing, groping, comments, flashing, etc. Only 20% of the victims reported their attack to police, and only 8% resulted in a conviction of the perpetrator(s).
In 2018, the Urban Indian Health Institute expanded its investigation and started to collect data in 71 cities across 29 states. 506 unique cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women, girls, and two-spirit people were reported across those 71 cities: 25% were missing, 56% murdered, and 19% had an unknown status. At least 25 victims experienced sexual assault, 18 victims were identified as sex workers or victims of trafficking. Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people are more likely than people from other racial groups to be trafficked. Their historical trauma and grief, their often poor living conditions, and gender- and race-based stereotypes make them particularly vulnerable to this form of violence. Again, it is shocking to notice that most perpetrators were male, and half were non-Native. Among them, only 38 were convicted, and 28% of them were never found guilty or held accountable. The Urban Indian Health Institute also found 153 ‘invisible cases’: cases that have been identified but that currently do not exist in any law enforcement record. This is just another example of how difficult it is to collect data and get a clear picture of the situation of Native women in the U.S.
The Urban Indian Health Institute’s report succeeded in shaking people’s consciousness. More and more Native women started to protest, painting a red hand on their mouths as a symbol of their missing sisters’ voices that had been silenced for years. Red is also considered by many Indigenous tribes the only color that spirits can see. So, by wearing it, Native people try to call back the spirit of their missing women, girls, and two-spirit people.
Finally, in 2019 the government started to take action. The Senate officially designated May 5th as the national day of awareness for MMIWG to honor the birthday of Hanna Harris, a Northern Cheyenne woman who went missing in Montana and was found dead after being sexually abused. Around September 2019, several states also passed legislation meant to address this crisis for the first time. In the same year, Executive Order 13898, a.k.a. Operation Lady Justice, created a task force to improve U.S. data collection policies and investigative responses, while in 2021, the Missing and Murdered Unit was born.
Native women are victims of systemic violence that rarely gets the attention of mainstream media. Fusion Movement wants to express its solidarity with all the stolen sisters of #MMIWG and their families.
We are a movement of women and for women; we want Indigenous women to be seen and heard because their lives, dreams, and vision is precious to us and the kaleidoscopic female experience. We will therefore continue to raise awareness about women, their rights, and the injustices they face until each and every woman on Earth is free and safe.
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