Violence against Indigenous women is a crisis in the U.S., report finds

By: - November 12, 2021 7:00 am

Indigenous women led the 2019 Phoenix Women’s March, where they advocated for their missing and murdered Native sisters. Such activism is bringing a sense of urgency to the problem. Photo by Delia Johnson | Cronkite News.

Violence against Indigenous women in the U.S. is a crisis, but the extent of the problem remains unknown, according to a report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

“There’s no one single database that has all this information,” Gretta Goodwin, the director of GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice team, told the Arizona Mirror. “So, the full scope of the problem is we don’t know.”

And gathering the data needed to figure out just how big the problem is is complicated by a history of police racism and prejudice that has left Indigenous people feeling that there is no reason to seek help from law enforcement agencies, leaving untold numbers of cases unreported — and uninvestigated.

The report, which was published Nov. 1, comes two years after more than a dozen members of Congress wrote a letter to the GAO requesting an investigation on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in the United States.

With no centralized database among the thousands of federal, state and tribal entities, there is limited data on missing and murdered Indigenous people.

The GAO report identified four major federal databases that included some data on missing and murdered Indigenous people. The missing person data was pulled from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) and The National Crime Information Center (NCIC). The data for murdered individuals came from the National Violent Death Reporting System and the National Incident-Based Reporting System.

For instance, NamUS published a report in August stating that there are 734 unresolved missing Indigenous people’s cases from 36 states. Arizona has the thirst-highest number of cases at 55.

The NCIC publishes a roundup every year that highlights the total number of missing persons and unidentified person cases reported.

In 2020, over 9,500 cases involving Indigenous people were reported, and nearly 1,500 were still active cases at the end of 2020.

The lack of overall data is only one of the issues that local MMIW advocate groups and tribes have been talking about for years, and now that the MMIW crisis has more of a national spotlight, federal and state entities are starting to pay attention.

“The GAO has affirmed what we have known for a long time — that the federal government’s response to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women has been inadequate and lacks a basic understanding of the scope of the crisis,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, said.

Grijalva and Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Phoenix Democrat, both signed the letter submitted to the GAO in 2019, and each of them released statements pointing out how the GAO report echoes what local MMIW advocates and tribes have been saying about the crisis for years.

“For too long, government and law enforcement ignored the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Gallego said. “The findings of this report confirm what Indian Country and advocates know: there is more that must be done to end this crisis.”

In some tribal communities, Indigenous women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average, according to the Department of Justice.

In 2017, homicide was reported as the fourth-leading cause of death among Indigenous women between the ages of 1 and 19 years and the sixth-leading cause of death for ages 20 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a report from the National Institute of Justice, 84% of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime, compared to 71% of white women.

GAO Report Findings and Recommendations

The GAO’s inquiry into MMIW started in January 2020 and concluded in October 2021. The report examines to what extent the number of MMIW is known in the U.S., as well as what steps the Department of Justice and Department of Interior have taken to address the issue.

“When we started this work, we knew that a number of groups had already been attempting to highlight this issue,” Goodwin said. “This is the first time we’ve done this work.”

Outside of the databases, the GAO was able to identify other data collection efforts, including regional efforts from researchers, tribes, and states.

The GAO worked with locations in seven states to see how they collected MMIW data: Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Washington.

Within these locations, the GAO interviewed law enforcement agencies, collected tribal perspectives on the MMIW related issues from 23 tribes, and reviewed reports from local advocacy groups.

“Our seven cases certainly don’t speak to the experience of all 574 federally recognized tribes,” said Anna Maria Ortiz, the director of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team. “They do give us glimpses on some of the factors that we think might play into this crisis.”

Goodwin said they did not name the locations they worked within the report out of respect because the GAO intends on continuing their work in this field.

“We determined that while the data have limitations for estimating the absolute magnitude of missing or murdered (Indigenous) women, they were sufficiently reliable for the purposes of identifying potential locations with relatively high numbers and missing or murdered (Indigenous) women per capita,” the report states.

In terms of what contributes to the lack of data, the GAO report pointed out several reasons, including how federal databases do not contain national data on all Indigenous women reported missing, but also that officials are prone to underreporting cases, misclassification of race as well as misclassifications of the manner of death to the federal databases.

The findings in the report were not surprising to Ortiz, but she was struck by how haunting some of the stories were that tribal community members shared with them during their research.

Indigenous men and women used the #MMIW hashtag at the Women’s March in Phoenix to honor missing and murdered indigenous women. Photo by Melina Zuniga/Cronkite News.

“The legacy of historical racism and prejudice made families feel like they could not even go to law enforcement because law enforcement was going to be dismissive or ignore their concerns,” she said. “So, it was not a surprise per se, but it was devastating and speaks to how important it is that the federal government do what it can to improve its response to this crisis.”

The GAO report also looked into how the Justice and Interior Department has addressed the MMIW issue. The report found that some of the requirements listed in two laws from 2020, the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act, could help address part of the MMIW crisis, but it’s up to both departments to implement them.

National attention on the crisis involving missing and murdered Indigenous people has been increasing over the years.

In 2019, the Justice Department announced the agency’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative and President Donald Trump launched a task force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives known as Operation Lady Justice.

In April, another national push came from Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland when she launched the Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. This unit will provide leadership and direction for cross-departmental and interagency work involving missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“Whether it’s a missing family member or a homicide investigation, these efforts will be all hands on deck,” Haaland said at the time. “We are fully committed to assisting Tribal communities with these investigations, and the MMU will leverage every resource available to be a force multiplier in preventing these cases from becoming cold case investigations.”

The Interior Department reported that 2,700 cases of murder and non-negligent homicide offenses have been reported to the federal government’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.

Even though the Justice and Interior departments increased their efforts to address the MMIW crisis, the GAO report found that the departments have not implemented certain requirements to increase intergovernmental coordination and data collection as part of the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act. The agencies have even missed some of their statutory deadlines.

As part of the Not Invisible Act, one requirement is that the secretary of the interior, in coordination with the attorney general, is supposed to appoint members to a Joint Commission on Reducing Violence Against Indians. Those appointments were supposed to be made by February 2021, 120 days after the act passed.

None have been appointed. In August, nearly nine months after the deadline, the Justice and Interior departments announced they wanted to start finding members for the commission.

Savanna’s Act directs the Justice Department to review, revise and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing or murdered Indigenous people.

Some of the requirements from Savanna’s Act include having the attorney general, in cooperation with the secretary of interior, consult with tribes on how to improve tribal data relevance and access to databases.

The Justice Department also needs to provide training to law enforcement agencies on how to record tribal enrollment or victims in federal databases as well as develop and implement a strategy to educate the public on NamUs.

GAO reported that, as of June, the Justice Department is in the planning stage for meeting this data collection and reporting requirements and is considering using data from two federal databases to satisfy it.

The GAO reported that the Justice Department had until April to conduct a strategy to educate the public about NamUs, but as of June, there was still no plan or time frame for its implementation.

The GAO stated that the Justice and Interior departments developing plans to meet the joint commission and other unfulfilled statutory requirements would provide more confidence that they are working to meet their legal responsibilities, as well as support tribal partners in reducing violent crime.

“Implementation of data-related requirements in new laws and ongoing data analysis present opportunities to increase understanding of the scope of the MMIW crisis,” the GAO report states.

The GAO report made four recommendations on addressing the MMIW crisis in the US, three for the Justice Department and one for the Interior Department.

Ortiz said ​​GAO’s recommendations are more about making sure that there are plans for follow-through for work that has already been started by the Justice and Interior Department under the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s act.

“When GAO issues recommendations, we have a very robust follow-up process. We will be periodically checking in with those agencies,” Goodwin said, and both departments did agree to follow through with the recommendations the GAO produced.

“They agreed to the recommendation and we know that they are starting efforts to implement these recs,” Goodwin added.

Arizona’s MMIW Study Committee on Hiatus

Arizona’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls study committee is mentioned in the GAO report as one of the few local initiatives working to gather comprehensive data on the MMIW crisis at a local level.

“It’s a good outline of what some of the issues are,” state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, the chair of the study committee, said of the GAO report. “It doesn’t go that into depth on some of the issues. It’s good touchpoints for other research to spin off it.”

The Arizona study committee launched in 2019 in an effort to gather more information about the issue within the state. The committee published its first report in 2020.

“There is a nationwide epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and Arizona, with 22 federally recognized Tribes, is at the epicenter,” Jermaine, a Chandler Democrat, said.

“Murders of Indigenous women and girls have been steadily increasing over the past 40 years,” the study committee’s report states. The study committee found that only 160 murders of Indigenous females were recorded in Arizona from 1976 to 2018. An Arizona Mirror analysis of the sparse available data on MMIWG cases found that more than 25% of murders involving idigenous women in Arizona go unsolved.

Additionally, the Murder Accountability Project found that one in three murders of Native Americans in Arizona go unreported to the FBI.

A 2017 study from the Urban Indian Health Institute found that Arizona has the third-highest number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in the country.

That study reported a total of 506 known cases in 71 urban cities across the country and 54 cases were identified in Arizona, including 31 in Tucson.

Jermaine said the study committee is on an unplanned hiatus because the proposed changes made to the committee were among the dozens of new state laws that the Arizona Supreme court struck down because they were unconstitutionally added to the state budget earlier this year.

But Jermaine said the committee’s partnership with Arizona State University is ongoing, and research of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the state of Arizona continues even though the law amending the committee was struck down.

Those researchers helped the committee with the original report and are not bound by legislation, allowing them to move forward with the changes they’ve made to the study.

Jermaine said the study committee is aiming to have another report published about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples by November 2022, but how the committee’s work evolves will depend on what the legislature does next year.

This story was originally published by the Arizona Mirror, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom, which includes the Florida Phoenix.

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues.