May 5th – Murdered And Missing Indigenous Women And Girls

While many associate May the 5th with the celebratory Cinco de Mayo, there are others who instead observe the day in solemnity for the international pandemic of murdered and missing women and girls from across numerous indigenous populations, First Nations peoples, Metis, and Inuit most especially in the United States and Canada. The date was intentionally chosen in honor of the birthday of Hanna Harris, a Northern Cheyenne woman who went missing and was found murdered days later in July 2013.

The most common symbol of the day used to raise awareness of the issue is the red handprint. Often times the red handprint is depicted covering the mouth of a woman or girl, to visually symbolize how the victims have been silenced. Many will wear red, especially red dresses specifically on this day to raise awareness too. Or the red dresses will be displayed as a visual effigy for the murdered and missing women and girls.

Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women symbol of a woman face inside of a red handprint. Artwork designed by  Sarah Whalen-Lunn.
artwork by Sarah Whalen-Lunn

#HASHTAGS BEHIND THE MOVEMENT

This is used in combination with various hashtags on social media. The main one, #MMIW was begun by former Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc., Sheila North Wilson. Since then, more hashtags have joined the fight: #MMIWG, the less common #MMIWG2 (Murdered, Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirits), #MMNAWG (Murdered, Missing Native American Women & Girls), #NoMoreStolenSisters #GoneButNotForgotten and #REDdress. The REDdress campaign began in 2000 by Canadian Jaime Black (Métis), in an interview for CTV News she shared that her friend explained to her “that red was the only color spirits could see”. Where red dresses are displayed as a symbol of the missing and murdered. #WalkingWithOurSisters is a public art campaign where the top part of the moccasins (known as a vamp), are decorated with beadwork or quillwork representative of their tribal culture, one for every woman or girl reported missing. The vamps displayed collectively on the floor of public spaces that host the traveling exhibit.

These hashtags all help first to raise awareness of the issue–because you can’t solve a problem until you first get everyone to acknowledge and understand there is a problem in the first place–and to help to build momentum in finding and implementing solutions to combat the crisis ranging from prevention, providing resources, and seeing justice is served.

The problem is truly alarming by the statistics of how these women are predated. The issue for a long time was known in Tribal communities, but hadn’t penetrated into a wider spread of awareness. But with a movement of activists and allies, studies and reports, we are slowly seeing the issue start to creep into entertainment media ranging from podcasts, news outlets, and through TV & Film: such as the movie Wind River (starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen), plus in television drama programs like Longmire and the mega hit Yellowstone. For many who live far away from Tribal areas, this has provided the very first introduction to the problem at hand.

THE PROBLEM

In a publication from the Minnesota Law Review, Marie Quasius in her article Native American Rape Victims: Desperately Seeking an Oliphant-Fix begins her article with a shocking microcosm of the problem faced by Native American women:

Leslie Ironroad lay dying in her hospital bed. She scribbled a statement to a police officer and identified the men who raped her, beat her, and locked her in the bathroom where she attempted to overdose on prescription medicine to escape further harm. No charges were filed. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation indicate that the police never investigated the men she identified. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police officer who took her statement did not follow up on her case because, in his words, “[federal prosecutors] only take the ones with a confession.” Prosecutorial inaction forces the BIA police,
who at the time of Ironroad’s death had five officers for a territory the size of Connecticut, to triage the many calls they receive each week.

Marie Quasius

She goes onto explain that “Native American women suffer sexual assault at a much higher rate and with more serious consequences than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. Further, such rapes are overwhelmingly committed by individuals outside the Native American community.” Data from other sources tells us that 96% of the rapes involving Native American women were committed by non-native men. There is a direct correlation to these alarming statistics connected with transient workers in mining, logging, and fossil fuels (oil and gas) industries who live in ‘man camps’ on and near Tribal lands as reported on at GreenPeace and CulturalSurvival.

One has only to live on a reservation or speak to members of the communities to know that rates of missing and murdered women and girls are high. Nearly every Native family has a story of a female relative who is missing, murdered, or whose murder has gone unsolved.

Mary Annette Pember, ‘We All Know Someone’: Tribal Community, Advocates Seek to Honor Missing and Murdered Native American Women


THE STATISTICS FOR MMIW

  • The U.S Department of Justice found that American Indian women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Homicide, reports that Homicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among 10-24 years of age and the fifth leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women between 25 and 34 years of age.
  • Proof of this can clearly be understood with this alarming statistic reported by the National Crime Information Center: in 2016 there were more than 5700 reported cases in the US but only 116 were logged into the Department of Justice database.
  • According to the Urban Indian Health Initiative, 95% of the cases receive no national or international media converge.
  • According to Centers for Disease Control data from 1999-2015, they face a mortality rate at the hands of police that is 12% higher than African Americans, and more than any other racial or ethnic group in the US. This of course leads to distrust in law enforcement, but illustrates institutional disenfranchisement.
  • In Canada, Indigenous women are less than 5% of the total female population, but in 2015 they comprised 25% of all murdered women in the nation.

The key problems besides socio-economic prejudice (both race and poverty do play key factors on why this community of females is so vulnerable to predation), include a lack of an overarching database, lack of consistent handling and training for such cases within law enforcement, lack of funding, and a lack of communication between the maze of jurisdictional laws and law enforcement agencies (tribal, local, state, federal, private). Plus lack of access to support services, including sexual forensic evidence kits, easy access to emergency medicine, and other health services. All factors that keep these women and girls vulnerable to predation, and keep the perpetrators at large to victimize again.

MISSION & RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS

The problem is one across generations, and rooted in past bigotry and racism, with a generational trauma that is very much an open wound impacting the living generations today. It begins with the start of European colonialism (Starting with Christopher Columbus) which led to the decimation of entire tribes, the forced enslavement of Indigenous people sold to the highest bidder at auction blocks across the Americas, the forced removal of tribes from their ancestral lands (Trail of Tears, The Long Walk, etc.), forced sterilization, and eventually the removal of children from their families and tribes to kill their culture via the residential or mission schools.

For those unfamiliar with the Mission School system, the Catholic church ran schools determined to beat the non-Christian out of their students which meant horrible mental and physical abuse, resulted in the theft of land and property and did in fact result in the death of untold vast numbers. The mission schools represented the death of a culture: both physically and spiritually and is something the Catholic Church engaged in for about 500 years across the globe. The genocidal tendencies of the church to the First Nation Peoples of the Americas was just as devastating as the holocaust was to the Jews. It wasn’t just the Catholic Church in on such schools and orphanages, but the concept would be adopted by those of similar mind and called Residential Schools, where the modus operandi as imagined by the founder of the Residential Schools Richard Pratt was “kill the Indian, in order to save the man.” One of the most famous ones in the United States was Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

But these schools were brimming with horrific abuse: slave labor, physical abuse, sexual abuse, sexual slavery, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse, and did result in the death of unknown numbers. We’re still not sure how many schools there were, who was enrolled, and how many died. Archaeologists are doing ground penetrating radar surveys mapping unmarked graves and the truth is finally being uncovered.

Below is a historical document, one that is testimony to the life story of Dennis Isaac Seely (born Cyril Dennis Isaac). As an infant in 1946, he was living on the Lake Traverse Reservation in Sisseton. His Dakota Sioux mother was out and the baby sitter was caring for him when two men drove up to the house, beat the care taker and forcibly took him to he orphanage. When his mother and the caretaker tried to get him back they were thrown in jail. He lived there in the papoose house for the next 5 years, at an orphanage run by Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, under Father John Pohlen. Pohlen was one of 15 named clergymen and nuns who abused the children. They also prostituted the children out in ‘trial adoptions’ to families that brutalized them too, then returned them to pick up another child. Dennis first was abused at age 4 by Pohlen. His mother was able to visit him once while at the orphanage.

For ten dollars he was sold to the Seelys. He still has the bus ticket and sign he had pinned to him as he was transported alone for hundreds of miles on the bus. The Seely’s never treated Dennis as a son, but only as unpaid labor. They adopted him when they were in their 50s. His father managed to track him down, but unable to take him home (because children would never be allowed to return to their tribal families), gave him some gum and a hug, and Dennis never saw him again. When his mother was dying, the family tried to find him, but it appears the Seelys merely kept them at bay, and never told Dennis. Sophie would die of alcoholism after having all 4 of her children stolen from her. In 1990 when Dennis returned to the reservation he felt like an outsider. “Everything was taken away from me — my language, my history, everything. I felt like a white person coming into the reservation.”

A class action lawsuit would eventually be filed against the diocese (as well as other criminal complaints) but ultimately were dismissed, even as South Dakota lawmakers changed laws to make it more difficult for victims to seek justice.

Survivors are seeking accountability. Even today the United States Government cannot provide data for the number of such schools that were operating, or their locations. Though Deb Haaland, current United States Secretary of the Interior is spearheading an effort to find that information.

For more on Mission and Residential Schools:

ABC News’ Nightline aired a special in 2022 called “What America Owes: The Stolen Generation”, which featured two segments: Part 1: Indigenous families seek justice for boarding school abuse, and Part 2: Deb Haaland Talks Indian Boarding School Initiative.

Read the United Nations Report, Indigenous Peoples and Boarding Schools: A Comparative Study.

THERE IS HOPE, BUT IT WON’T BE EASY

Despite the grim statistics, there is hope. Recently Washington state approved a new alert, the Indigenous People Alert, to operate similar to an Amber Alert to help hopefully bring people home alive. Until then there’s a toolkit ( “Tribal Community Response When a Woman is Missing” and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center’s toolkit ) to help family members navigate a response in addition to contacting law enforcement. In 2017, the National Domestic Violence Hotline launched the StrongHearts Native Hotline. MMIWUSA based out of the Portland, Oregon area has a new monthly program called Staying Sacred, led by survivors of assault or trafficking that educate others and teach self-defense. Their website proudly proclaims, Ittibi oks_i_foshi’ ihoo chohmi! (translation: “Fight Like a Hatchet Woman!”).

At the federal government level, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services is opening seven Operation Lady Justice Task Force cold case offices across the country to concentrate on the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Legislative action to help address the MMIW crisis is starting to be introduced in state and federal legislatures, and some are becoming law. In 2020, Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Acts were signed into US Law.

Savanna’s Act is named in honor of Savanna LaFontaine- Greywind, a 22-year old pregnant citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota who was viciously murdered in August 2017. The Act aims to improve MMIW data collection, access, and directs the Department of Justice to review, revise, and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing and murdered Indigenous peoples.

The Not Invisible Act of 2019 complements Savanna’s Act, with its purpose to identify and combat violent crime against Indians or within Indian lands through the creation of an advisory committee on reducing violent crime against Native people. Comprised of tribal leaders, law enforcement, federal partners, service providers, and survivors, the advisory committee will make recommendations to the U.S. Department of Interior and Department of Justice on combatting violence against Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

niwrc.org

While these are but first steps, there’s a lot of work yet to do. Sadly, US Senator Steve Daines has discovered through the US Government Accountability Office that as of November 2021 the laws have not been implemented, nor is there a plan in place to implement them.

LEARN MORE

Bring Her Home on PBS follows three Indigenous women — an artist, an activist and a politician — as they work to vindicate and honor their relatives who are victims in the growing epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. As they face the lasting effects of historical trauma, each woman searches for healing while navigating the oppressive systems that brought about this very crisis.

In some areas, criminal investigation and evidence collection is left to the friends and family of the missing or murdered native woman, who then have to pay out of pocket for forensic testing of any evidence collected. This is touched upon in the segment “Indigenous student’s disappearance just one in epidemic of missing native women” by ABC News Nightline. 

Amnesty USA’s Spring 2008 report Maze of Injustice – The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s First Annual Interdisciplinary Conference on Human Trafficking in 2009 had a research paper by Alexandra (Sandi) Pierce entitled Shattered hearts (full report): The commercial sexual exploitation of American Indian women and girls in Minnesota

To learn more: https://www.csvanw.org/mmiw/

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