Addressing the Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Two indigenous women looking off into the distance.
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Indigenous women are dual victims of violent crimes and federal policies that fail to mitigate the crisis.

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Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately missing—both in real life and from media coverage afforded to victims of violent crimes.

This past year, the tragic death of Gabby Petito and subsequent media coverage renewed conversations around “missing white woman syndrome”—a societal fixation on stories about white victims at the expense of others.

Ms. Petito’s remains were discovered in Wyoming after days of intense media coverage and with the help of many government resources—including cadaver dogs, drones, and helicopters. This attention, both by the media and law enforcement, is more than the families of most other victims can expect—especially victims that are Black or Indigenous.

This focused attention given to certain missing victims does not reflect the disproportionate violence against Indigenous individuals. In the state of Wyoming, where Ms. Petito was found, 710 Indigenous people were reported missing in the last decade—amounting to about 15 percent of all people reported missing during that time period. In addition, 21 percent of homicide victims in Wyoming are Indigenous. Yet Indigenous people account for less than three percent of the total state population.

These numbers are likely undercounted enormously, and they are not unique to Wyoming.

Indigenous women on tribal land are murdered at a rate ten times the national average. Violence against Indigenous women is embedded in the patriarchal settler-colonial history of the United States. Forced relocations and other harmful U.S. government policies have created what advocates call a “pipeline of vulnerability” for Indigenous people, who are at greater risk of poverty, housing insecurity, and exposure to the foster care system.

Due to the combination of these factors with gendered violence, women and girls are especially vulnerable. And given the role of the U.S. government in creating the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, it should play a stronger role in combating the harm.

For those living on tribal land, jurisdictional conflicts between local, federal, and tribal governments exacerbate the crisis. Tribal law enforcement agencies often do not have the authority to arrest, charge, or prosecute non-Native people, even on tribal land. The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that tribal officers can at least investigate and detain non-Native suspects while waiting for non-tribal law enforcement to arrive. But non-tribal law enforcement might never arrive, as it often lacks the resources or interest to investigate crimes against Indigenous women and girls.

Furthermore, the first few hours in missing persons cases are crucial, but jurisdictional conflicts lead to delays in starting the investigation. Resources available in the local area and case-specific facts often dictate which law enforcement agency takes the lead on murder investigations. Even when the federal government has sole jurisdiction to investigate, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) does not participate in a missing persons investigation, unless there is evidence that a federal crime has occurred. When they do get involved, the closest federal agents might be located a few hours away from the reservation.

In addition, tribal members claim that systemic racism and sexism reduce the urgency with which federal officials respond to their missing persons reports. This perceived or actual dismissiveness creates a sense that reporting missing persons is useless, leading to fewer reports.

This hesitancy among community members to report also means the full scope of the crisis is unknown. Worsening the problem, the federal government has failed to track the number of reported missing or murdered Indigenous women nationwide adequately.

Existing federal databases do not accurately reflect the number of Indigenous women that relatives and loved ones report missing. As of 2016, 5,712 cases of missing Indigenous women and girls were reported to law enforcement. The U.S. Department of Justice, however, only logged 116 of those cases in the publicly accessible missing persons database.

Underreporting and lack of media representation minimize the extent of the crisis. Without complete data, policymakers and law enforcement struggle to implement informed policy solutions.

But the work of Indigenous women, organizations, and tribes—who have spent years advocating government action to address the crisis—has resulted in some federal legislation in recent years. With passage of a pair of laws in 2020, Congress attempted to mitigate the crises by improving data collection and coordination between tribal, local, and federal governments.

The first law, Savanna’s Act, requires the U.S. Justice Department to consult tribal officials about how to improve access to databases relevant to crimes against missing or murdered Indigenous people. The Act also promotes training all levels of law enforcement officials about their role in missing persons cases. The second law, Not Invisible Act, requires the U.S. Department of the Interior to create a joint commission comprising law enforcement, tribal members, survivors, and other stakeholders.

But in an October report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Interior Department and the Justice Department have failed to comply with their legal obligations under both statutes.

One month after GAO released its critical report, President Joseph R. Biden issued an executive order directing the U.S. Attorney General, Secretary of the Interior, and other agency heads to improve their responses to the violence. President Biden called on federal agencies to provide tribes with better resources to mitigate violent crime and collect accurate data.

But an effective response to this dire crisis requires more than executive action. Congress alone has the power to resolve the unique jurisdictional challenges that enflame the crisis. The latest reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act would grant tribal authorities jurisdiction over non-Native domestic and sexual abusers who offend on tribal land. Unfortunately, that bill has stalled in the Senate, unable to overcome a Republican filibuster over unrelated provisions in the law.

The dramatic public response to Gabby Petito’s tragic death emphasized the perpetual lack of attention and protection afforded to Indigenous women. It is clear that federal agencies must—at a minimum—comply with their obligations under existing law. But beyond this, Congress must grant tribal law enforcement the autonomy required to combat gendered violence on tribal land.