WASHINGTON (FNN) – In recognition of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day on May 4, 2021, President Biden signed a proclamation that read in part:
“Today, thousands of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Native Americans continue to cry out for justice and healing. On Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, we remember the Indigenous people who we have lost to murder and those who remain missing and commit to working with Tribal Nations to ensure any instance of a missing or murdered person is met with swift and effective action.
“Our failure to allocate the necessary resources and muster the necessary commitment to addressing and preventing this ongoing tragedy not only demeans the dignity and humanity of each person who goes missing or is murdered, it sends pain and shockwaves across our Tribal communities. Our treaty and trust responsibilities to Tribal Nations require our best efforts, and our concern for the well-being of these fellow citizens require us to act with urgency. To this end, our Government must strengthen its support and collaboration with Tribal communities.”
In 2017, the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), a tribal epidemiology center, undertook a study of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) aimed at assessing the number and dynamics of cases of MMIWG across the United States. The UIHI looked at three things:
- Why is obtaining data so hard
- How is law enforcement tracking and responding to these cases
- How is the media reporting these cases
A Major Gap Between the Number of Cases and What Gets Reported
The UIHI found that as of 2016, the National Crime Information Center reported 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, while the US Justice Department’s missing person database only had 116 reported cases.
The CDC lists murder as the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women and says that the rates of violence on reservations can be 10 times higher than the national average. But no research has been done on rates of violence among American Indian and Alaska Native women living in urban areas, even though approximately 71 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in urban areas.
The 2016 census showed that 50.2 percent of the urban Indian population identified as female. Urban Indian is described as tribal people living off federally-defined tribal lands in urban areas.
There are critical issues regarding the jurisdiction of MMIWG cases on reservations and village lands but a lack of prosecution, poor data collection, prejudice, and institutional racism are factors in urban cases.
The UIHI found that the lack of good data is due to underreporting, racial misclassification, poor relationships between law enforcement and American Indian and Alaska Native communities, poor record-keeping protocols, institutional racism in the media, and lack of substantive relationships between journalists and American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
The UIHI used the Freedom of Information Act to request information from law enforcement, and state and national databases, they gathered information through searches of online media archives and public social media posts, as well as community and family accounts to gather the data for their report.
The UIHI looked at 71 cities in 29 states, including here in Orlando.
The UIHI requested data from 1900 to the present with the oldest case reported being from 1943 and two-thirds of the cases were from 2010 to 2018, suggesting that the actual number of cases is much higher than what the UIHI was able to identify in the study.
506 unique cases were identified, 128 (25 percent) were missing person cases, 280 (56 percent) were murder cases and 98 (19 percent) were unknown. Unknown was defined as when law enforcement gave a total number of cases but did not clarify how many were missing person cases and how many were murder cases or when a case was listed on a missing person database and then removed and the UIHI could not verify if the person was found safe or deceased.
The youngest victim was less than a year old and the oldest victim was 83 years old. 137 (22 percent) of the 506 cases involved girls less than 18 years old.
Of the perpetrators that were identified 83 percent were male and over half were non-native. 28 percent of these perpetrators were never charged or held accountable and as of the date of the report, 30 alleged perpetrators still had charges pending.
Sadly, more than 95 percent of these cases went unreported in the national media. Some were reported in the local media, but many times the coverage was sparse and carried with it language that seemed to blame the victim.
So Where Do We Go from Here?
Tribal nations must have the ability to advocate for their citizens living in urban areas when they go missing or are killed. This is a courtesy extended to all other sovereign nations—when a citizen is killed while living or traveling outside the nation of which they are a citizen, the nation is notified of their death and able to advocate for their citizen’s case and family. This basic respect must be afforded to tribal nations as well, so they are able to fully practice their inherent sovereignty by advocating for the health and safety of all their citizens, regardless of where they reside. Unfortunately, tribal nations are rarely notified if a member goes missing or is murdered so there is no way for them to advocate for their members and their families.
The UIHI discovered a striking level of inconsistency between community, law enforcement, and media understanding of the magnitude of this violence. If their report demonstrates one powerful conclusion, it is that if we rely solely on law enforcement or media for awareness or understanding of the issue, we will have a deeply inaccurate picture of the realities, minimizing the extent to which urban American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls experience this violence. This inaccurate picture limits our ability to address this issue with new policies, programs, and advocacy initiatives.
Lynn DeJarnette is a contributing writer for Florida National News. | firstname.lastname@example.org