By: Shelly Feldman
Associate Editor, Vol. 27
November is Native American Heritage Month (also known as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month).[i] In honor of this American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, I will be writing about an issue affecting Native communities across the country: the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples (MMIP). This is a crisis “centuries in the making that will take a focused effort and time”[ii] to unravel. Recent legislation and policy initiatives to address the crisis mark a turning point in terms of the government’s priority in tackling the crisis.[iii] After all, President Biden declared May 5, 2021 MMIP Awareness Day.[iv] In April of this year, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland also announced the formation of the Missing & Murdered Unit in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.[v] The government’s recent initiatives are a step in the right direction, but lack of public awareness of the crisis remains a problem. More public awareness and collaboration between all relevant stakeholders are needed to combat the crisis.
The MMIP crisis disproportionately affects women.[vii] Most Indigenous women expect to be victims of violence in their lifetime: “80% of Native women will experience some form of physical abuse and over half will experience some form of sexual assault.”[viii] Alaska Native women have assault rates 12 times higher than the rest of the United States.[ix] The Department of Justice has reported that Native women are killed at a rate more than 10 times the national average.[x] Data is limited, but a 2017 Urban Indian Health Institute report found that there were 5,712 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls reported in 2016, but only 116 of these cases were logged in the Department of Justice’s database.[xi] The report documents 506 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across 71 urban cities.[xii] Urban cities, just like rural communities, lack resources to address the MMIP crisis.[xiii] States with the highest number of cases include New Mexico, Washington, Arizona, and Alaska.[xiv] The report also cited several reasons why obtaining information about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is difficult, including a lack of response from law enforcement.[xv] Federal law also makes it difficult to investigate crimes on Native land.[xvi] Savanna’s Act, signed into law in 2020, aims to mitigate this difficulty.[xvii] Savanna’s Act was introduced in Congress after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a pregnant member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, was found murdered.[xviii] The Act clarifies the enforcement responsibilities of different parties, such as federal, state, and tribal law enforcement, when an Indigenous person goes missing or is murdered. The Act also increases communication and coordination between different law enforcement agencies, improves tribal access to resources and information held in federal criminal databases, and directs U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to implement regionally appropriate guidelines instructing responses to missing or murdered Indigenous people.[xix] The Not Invisible Act, signed into law the same day, creates a Joint Commission on Reducing Violent Crimes Against Indians comprised of different stakeholders from throughout the country. The Commission’s stakeholders recommend practices that the Departments of Interior and Justice can take to mitigate disappearances, murder, and other crimes against American Indians and Alaska Natives.[xx]
An example of another government initiative created to address the MMIP epidemic is the appointment of MMIP Coordinators at U.S. Attorneys’ Offices throughout the country.[xxi] There are 11 MMIP Coordinators total: in Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, Michigan, Utah, Nevada, Minnesota, Oregon, New Mexico, and Washington state.[xxii] The appointment of MMIP Coordinators reflects an effort to assist tribal governments, among other partners, in developing Tribal Community Response Plans (TCRP).[xxiii] TCRPs contain guides for responding to cases of MMIP[xxiv] and are “individualized to the needs, resources, and culture of the community.”[xxv] When a person goes missing, time is of the essence. Collaboration among several partners is crucial in responding to reports of missing Indigenous people in the most time-sensitive manner. One model to look at is the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska.[xxvi] Other U.S. Attorneys’ Offices may find the District of Alaska’s approach useful in devising the most effective TCRPs, as well as law enforcement responses throughout the District. Alaska set up an MMIP working group, which began meeting in September 2020.[xxvii] The working group focuses on developing the TCRP guidelines and conforming them to the needs of the communities it is working with.[xxviii] The group is made up of various law enforcement agencies, other federal and state agencies, victim services groups, social services providers, and representatives from tribes and tribal governments.[xxix] This multidisciplinary approach provides pilot sites – in Alaska, Curyung Tribal Council (Dillingham), Native Village of Unalakleet, and Koyukuk Native Village – with tailored TCRPs that adhere to their tribal cultures and traditions.[xxx] For example, the Curyung Tribal Council wanted to be a part of the project in part because of the importance in tribal governance to exercise tribal council sovereignty on these issues and gather its own data to quantify the issue and its impact on the community.[xxxi] The Pilot Project recognizes the importance of communication and transparency both before and when a crisis occurs.[xxxii] The implementation of the Pilot Project in these communities can serve as inspiration for other communities across the state of Alaska and inspire other tribal communities throughout the country to work with law enforcement in devising solutions that work for everyone.
Again, the lack of awareness of the MMIP crisis is a serious problem. Awareness of the crisis is important because it increases the likelihood an Indigenous person will be found if they go missing.[xxxiii] One explanation for the lack of awareness is that reports of MMIP receive less media attention than reports of missing non-Indigenous people.[xxxiv] For example, the recent disappearance of Gabby Petito in Wyoming received significant social media coverage.[xxxv] But Gabby Petito is not the only young woman that has disappeared in Wyoming recently.[xxxvi] According to a 2021 report by the State of Wyoming’s MMIP Task Force, more than 700 Indigenous people, the majority of them female, went missing in Wyoming in the last decade.[xxxvii] The State found that 30% of Indigenous homicide victims made the news, compared to over 50% of white victims.[xxxviii] The report also found that 21% of missing Indigenous people are missing for 30 days, if not longer.[xxxix] In contrast, only 11% of white people who go missing remain missing for that long.[xl] MMIP in Wyoming is a state-wide problem—there are missing Indigenous people in 22 of Wyoming’s 23 counties.[xli] Wyoming is not alone in this; other states around the country also have high statewide MMIP rates.[xlii] Of course while “[r]aising awareness isn’t enough, [ ] invisibility of this issue can no longer be tolerated.”[xliii] Raising awareness of the crisis will not end it, but it is a very important goal to have along the way.
Increasing funding to tribal communities is also important.[xliv] With more funding, communities’ responses in the event someone goes missing will likely improve. Reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act with strengthened protections for tribal communities is essential. The important work of advocacy groups, social services groups, and victims services groups, to spread awareness of the crisis, provide resources to victims and their families, and collaborate on the ground with impacted Native communities, also remains essential. This is a multifaceted problem that will require a multifaceted solution. While we might be at an “inflection point”[xlv] in addressing the crisis, we still have a lot of work to do to get where we need to be.
We must never forget those who’ve been systemically silenced. We as a society cannot also be silent about this crisis anymore.
 Content warning: violence against women, Indigenous violence, missing and murdered Indigenous peoples
[i] Native American Heritage Month, Nat’l Cong. of Am. Indians (November 2021), https://www.ncai.org/initiatives/native-american-heritage-month.
[ii] Dep’t of the Interior, Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (2021), https://www.doi.gov/priorities/missing-and-murdered-indigenous-peoples.
[iv] Press Release, The White House, A Proclamation on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, 2021 (May 4, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/05/04/a-proclamation-on-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-persons-awareness-day-2021/.
[v] Press Release, Dep’t of the Interior, Secretary Haaland Creates New Missing & Murdered Unit to Pursue Justice for Missing or Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives (April 1, 2021), https://www.doi.gov/news/secretary-haaland-creates-new-missing-murdered-unit-pursue-justice-missing-or-murdered-american.
[vi] ‘I have brought the MMIW epidemic to the forefront’: The powerful image of a red handprint,’ Indian Country Today, Feb. 15, 2021, https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/i-have-brought-the-mmiw-epidemic-to-the-forefront-the-powerful-image-of-a-red-handprint/.
[vii] Native Hope, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, https://www.nativehope.org/en-us/understanding-the-issue-of-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women.
[ix] Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act Signed into Law, Indian L. Res. Ctr., https://indianlaw.org/swsn/savanna_not_invisible_laws.
[x] Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, supra note 7.
[xi] Urb. Indian Health Inst., Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls (2018), https://www.uihi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Missing-and-Murdered-Indigenous-Women-and-Girls-Report.pdf.
[xvi] Maureen Pao, Savanna’s Act Addresses Alarming Number of Missing or Killed Native Women, Nat’l Pub. Radio (September 28, 2020), https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/09/28/917807372/savannas-act-addresses-alarming-numbers-of-missing-or-murdered-native-women.
[xvii] Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act Signed into Law, supra note 9.
[xxi] Press Release, U.S. Dep’t of Just., Attorney General William P. Barr Launches National Strategy to Address Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (November 22, 2019), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-william-p-barr-launches-national-strategy-address-missing-and-murdered.
[xxiii] U.S. Dep’t of Just., The Attorney General’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative Tribal Community Response Plan Pilot Projects, https://operationladyjustice.usdoj.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh281/files/media/document/Fact_Sheet_TCRPs_Pilot_Projects-AG_MMIP_Initiative.pdf.
[xxv] Press Release, U.S. Dep’t of Just., Pilot Projects Launched to Address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (February 8, 2021), https://www.justice.gov/usao-ak/pr/pilot-projects-launched-address-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-persons.
[xxxi] Brian Venua, Curyung Tribal Council joins federal project to investigate MMIP, KDLG (Mar. 3, 2021), https://www.kdlg.org/post/curyung-tribal-council-joins-federal-project-investigate-mmip#stream/0.
[xxxiii] Calley Lamar, MMIP seeks to raise awareness about missing and murdered indigenous people, The Ponca City News(Jun. 12, 2021), https://www.poncacitynews.com/news/mmip-seeks-raise-awareness-about-about-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-people.
[xxxiv] Kelsey Vlamis, 710 Indigenous people, mostly girls, were reported missing over the past decade in Wyoming, the same state where Gabby Petito reportedly disappeared, Insider (Sep. 19, 2021), https://www.insider.com/710-indigenous-people-missing-in-wyoming-where-gabby-petito-disappeared-2021-9.
[xxxvv] 710 Indigenous people, mostly girls, were reported missing over the past decade in Wyoming, the same state where Gabby Petito reportedly disappeared, supra note 32.
[xxxviii] 710 Indigenous people, mostly girls, were reported missing over the past decade in Wyoming, the same state where Gabby Petito reportedly disappeared, supra note 32.
[xxxix] Missing and Murdered Indigenous People: Statewide Reporting Wyoming, supra note 35.
[xli] 710 Indigenous people, mostly girls, were reported missing over the past decade in Wyoming, the same state where Gabby Petito reportedly disappeared, supra note 32.
[xlii] Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls, supra note 11.
[xliii] JooYeun Chang, Admin. for Child. & Fams., ACR recognizes Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons in memorial ceremony (2021), https://www.acf.hhs.gov/blog/2021/05/acf-recognizes-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-persons-memorial-ceremony.
[xliv] Debra Anne Haaland, Women are disappearing and dying in Indian country. We must act, The Guardian (May 2, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/02/missing-murdered-indigenous-women-deb-haaland.
[xlv] Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, supra note 2.