by Sophie Trist
President Joe Biden has just become the first U.S. president to issue a proclamation in honor of Indigenous People’s Day, which will be celebrated on Monday, October 11, 2021. In many states and cities across America, Indigenous People’s Day has replaced Columbus Day as our country strives to affirm the human dignity of native communities and their resilience in the face of unimaginable violence and erasure. Christopher Columbus was never the hero our national mythmaking portrayed. Immediately upon encountering the native peoples of the Caribbean islands in 1492, he began planning ways to exploit them, never seeing them as fully human. “With fifty men, they could all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them,” he infamously wrote in his journal. In some ways, this legacy of viewing indigenous people as expendable continues to the present day. There is so much to cover here—native people’s constant fight to maintain the environmental integrity of their lands, tribes not having access to public health resources during the COVID-19 pandemic—but this post will focus on the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls and our national indifference to it.
In September, the disappearance of twenty-two-year-old Gabby Petito, a white woman from New York, garnered massive attention both on social media and in the mainstream press. When her body was discovered in a national park in Wyoming, people were rightly grief-stricken and outraged. Gabby’s tragic death is a sharp reminder of the horror of intimate partner violence. However, the media coverage of her case illustrates what some BIPOC activists call “missing white woman syndrome” — our tendency to lavish attention and resources on the cases of missing white people while virtually ignoring the disappearances of people of color, particularly those of American Indian or Alaska Native descent.
In Wyoming, the same state where Gabby was murdered, 710 indigenous people have gone missing over the past decade with scarcely a whisper in the mainstream media. And while indigenous people make up just 3% of Wyoming’s population, they make up 21% of the state’s homicide victims. No government database specifically tracks cases of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), because many cases aren’t reported or well-documented. A 2016 report from the National Crime Information Center found that of 5,712 cases of MMIWG, only 116 were entered into the Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database. This same report indicates that in Montana, the state with the fifth-highest number of MMIWGs, there were 506 unique cases. 128 of these people were missing, 280 were murdered, 98 were listed as status unknown, and an additional 153 cases had never been reported to law enforcement.
This problem isn’t just relegated to a few states. On a national scale, indigenous women experience astronomic and horrifying rates of violence and abuse. Four in five Native American women will experience violence in their lifetimes; that’s over 80%. Indigenous women are murdered at ten times the rate of white women. Most of this violence comes at the hands of non-native perpetrators. 96% of indigenous sexual assault victims are attacked by non-native men. Additionally, many MMIWGs are then blamed for their own disappearances; it is often assumed that they just ran away, had substance abuse issues, or generally deserved whatever happened to them.
Because of the bewildering labyrinth of legal regulations that govern tribal lands, very few non-indigenous perpetrators are ever prosecuted for these violent crimes. The 2013 Violence Against Women Act gave Indian tribes some limited power to prosecute non-native offenders in domestic abuse cases, but for some incomprehensible reason, these powers did not cover child abuse, rape, or human trafficking. In order to gain even this very limited power to protect people on their lands, tribes must meet an array of extremely difficult bureaucratic requirements, investing large amounts of time and money. Only 27 of America’s 574 federally recognized tribes have any power to prosecute non-indigenous perpetrators of domestic abuse. Because most tribes can’t prosecute non-indigenous offenders, these cases are handled by federal courts, which often decline to prosecute.
Centuries of systemic racism and the legacy of colonial violence have dehumanized indigenous people in the national consciousness. From the advent of American colonization, rape and violence have been used to disconnect indigenous women from their bodies and the land. The unwillingness and inability to prosecute non-native men who abuse, traffic, and murder indigenous women is the latest atrocity in a campaign to rob native people of their human dignity which has been going on since Christopher Columbus came in 1492. So how can we reverse these trends?
Fortunately, the plight of MMIWGs is beginning to get some much-needed national attention. President Biden’s Secretary of the Interior, Deb Holland, the first indigenous woman to be appointed to a cabinet post, has created the Missing and Murdered Unit, an extension of President Trump’s Operation Lady Justice, which aims to work with federal, state, local, and tribal agencies to get justice for victims and survivors. The Urban Indian Health Institute has done detailed research on MMIWGs, and the Lakota People's Law Project has created an excellent resource guide for survivors and allies. This Indigenous People’s Day, it is critical to not only acknowledge that we are living on stolen land but also affirm our commitment to upholding the human dignity and human rights of indigenous people.