MISSING AND MURDERED INDIGENOUS WOMEN NEED OUR HELP
In September 2021, Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman from New York, went missing in Wyoming. The disappearance of Gabby Petito gained widespread media attention across the United States – over six law-enforcement agencies searched for her, and #GabbyPetito accumulated more than 950 million views on TikTok. As the news and media continuously covered Petito’s case, activists on social media began to draw attention to an issue they believed deserved as much coverage: the alarmingly high numbers of murdered and missing Native American women. Homicide is the third-leading cause of death for Native American women in the United States, and they are ten times more likely to be murdered than the national average. There are 1,500 missing American Indian and Alaska Native people at this time, but the true number may actually be higher, as most cases are believed to go unreported. Petito's case “was this huge international story,” says Charon Asetoyer, founder of the Native American Community Board on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Asetoyer further states that “women of color all over this country go missing every day, and you never hear about it in the news. All life matters. Her life matters. But our lives matter, too.”
The data showing increased rates of homicide and missing person cases and severe disparities in media coverage for Indigenous women is staggering. A report from Wyoming established that the homicide rate for Indigenous people from 2010 to 2019 was 26.8%, which is eight times higher than the homicide rate for white people. Additionally, between 2011 and September 2020, 710 indigenous people, mostly girls, were reported missing in the state. The report also found that only 30% of Indigenous homicide victims made the news, compared to 51% of white victims. There are similar findings in other states. In Montana, Indigenous people make up 7% of the population but account for 26% of missing persons. In Minnesota, Indigenous people represent just 1% of the state's population, but 9% of all women and girls murdered are Indigenous. Yet this issue has gone primarily underreported, and when the Native cases do get media attention, articles were more likely to add violent language or negatively portray them, compared to stories of the white victims. One of the cases mentioned in the report from Wyoming was about Nicole Wagon, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, who was facing the disappearance and death of two of her daughters. One of her daughters, Jocelyn Watt, was found murdered in her home in Wyoming at the beginning of 2019, and her homicide still remains unsolved. About a year later, Wagon filed a missing person’s report for her other daughter, Jade, after she didn’t return home. Jade was found dead weeks later. Despite the family’s tragedies, there was little public attention paid to either of their deaths. Wagon stated, “I believe if my daughters even had half the coverage, maybe they [the cases] would be solved.” Carolyn DeFord, founder of Missing and Murdered Native Americans, said there is not even a missing poster for some of these missing Indigenous women, let alone media coverage. DeFord said she would like to see a “consistency in investigations and resources put out there” for all families. Furthermore, Native American Teri Deschene’s daughter, Kiana Klomp, has been missing for a year and a half, and Deschene said there had not been a single article written about her. Deschene, a member of the Tlingit Tribe, said that she put up fliers all over and posted on social media for months, but when she tried to broadcast her daughter’s disappearance to a wider audience, she constantly came up short. “All I got in my pocket is Facebook and just social media. That’s all I got. I don’t get any help from any other place. I begged. I just feel left out and unimportant,” says Deschene.
While the stories of some Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls are slowly making their way into the news, it’s still going to be tough for them to get the coverage they deserve; however, there has been action taken to help protect them. In October 2020, former President Trump signed Savanna’s Act: a bill named after Savanna Greywind, a 22-year-old Spirit Lake tribal member from North Dakota killed in 2017. This law was designed to assist police in tracking, solving, and preventing crimes against Native Americans. It also requires the Department of Justice to work with tribes and develop law enforcement guidelines. Under the Biden administration, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet member in the United States history, created the Missing and Murdered Unit for Indigenous people. “Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades. Far too often, murders and missing person cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated. The new MMU unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families,” says Haaland. Lastly, several states, including Washington, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, have created task forces to specifically address the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Their goal is to help fight the abduction, homicide, violence, and trafficking of Indigenous women.
There are several things people can do to help these women. Since many people have access to social media, they can take advantage of this and spread awareness of what’s happening to Native American women. The issue will only improve as awareness is spread, and people are prompted to come together and take action. People can also sign petitions to tell the government that they’re not doing enough to help Native American women. Also, one can donate money to organizations that attempt to get these women back or to organizations that help train women so they can fight back. Lastly, people can contact the victims’ families offering support, so they’re not alone.
R., Gabriel Marquez. “'Missing White Woman Syndrome' Points to Ignored Indigenous Women.” Daily Trojan, 11 Oct. 2021, https://dailytrojan.com/2021/10/11/missing-white-woman-syndrome-points-to-ignored-indigenous-women/.
Person, and Andrew Hay. “As Petito Case Captivates U.S., Missing Native Women Ignored.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 23 Sept. 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/petito-case-captivates-us-missing-native-women-ignored-2021-09-22/.
“Families of Missing and Murdered Native Women Ask: 'Where's the Attention for Ours?'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Sept. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/24/native-american-women-missing-murdered-media.