The violence crisis against Native American women


Lakota People's Law Project

A Native American woman with the symbolic MMIW hand print

TW: violence, sexual assault

   In the United States, Canada, Australia and beyond, there is an epidemic of Native and Indigenous women going missing or being murdered. Yet, hardly anybody acknowledges this subject because cases quickly go cold and crucial evidence is “lost,” leaving these women and their families without justice. In 2019 alone, 5,600 Native women went missing in the U.S., with the number likely being higher due to police error in marking races and the unreported cases from scared families who are trying to find their missing sisters on their own. 

   The struggles of the Native Americans have been present ever since the arrival of the Europeans. They’ve been put through slavery and genocide, have had their children taken away from them to be put in boarding schools, were forced to forget their cultures and customs, and have had their land stolen. The effects of colonialism are still felt by many tribes today, with generational trauma, poverty on reservations, and the dehumanization of Native people in the medical field (where, along with other minorities, they are mistreated due to racism and the outdated belief still held by some doctors that they can’t feel pain like white people). Now, their women are being targeted with disproportionate violence, mostly by non-Native men on or around reservations. 

   There is an overall problem of violence towards women in our country, but Native women statistically have it the worst. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Native American and Inuit women were around 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted or murdered. This mixture of racism, sexism, and negative attitudes or stereotypes towards Native Americans has culminated in what many call a modern-day genocide.    

    This is concerning, and we should care more about these missing women. Indigenous women are the most vulnerable group in the U.S. right now, and the lack of awareness about these issues is extremely telling of our country’s attitude towards our Native people. The legal loopholes that allow the murderers to slip through the cracks result from relations between the U.S. federal government and the reservations that make it incredibly difficult to track and prosecute the mostly non-Native men who target the women. These include the Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which dictates that tribes cannot arrest and prosecute non-Natives if they commit a crime on Native land. A seeming reprieve would be the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which lets tribes prosecute non-Native domestic abusers if the crime was committed on Native land against a tribe member. This may seem as though it alleviates the issues of violence against Native women. However, abusers are able to take the women off of the reservation and do whatever they desire with them, thus giving the tribe no power over arrests and prosecutions. 

   Fortunately, there has been some awareness efforts around missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). In Canada and the U.S., the REDress Project by Jaime Black (who is Metis) is an art installation where red dresses are hung on trees. This is due to the belief in many tribes that red is the only color that spirits can see. In this way, the red dresses are leading the spirits of Native women, girls, and two-spirited individuals back to their homes and families. The dresses are left empty, so as to call back the spirits of the missing women who should be wearing them, and have their voices heard. 

   There have also been several grassroots organizations/movements formed by Native Americans, Inuit, First Nations or Metis individuals and their non-Native allies. These include #AmINext, Sisters In Spirit, a symbolic red hand print over the mouth and cheeks, and Drag the Red, which is an event where lines are dropped into the Red River in Manitoba to bring up any remains of missing women. This was started after the murder of Tina Fontaine, a 15 year old First Nations girl who was kidnapped, murdered, and thrown into the Red River wrapped in plastic and weighed down by rocks. The fact that the public must put together events like this in order to find the bodies of these women is horrendous, both because of a lack of police responsibility and the way that we devalue the lives of Indigenous people. 

   The mistreatment of Native women (and Natives as a whole) is terrifying, and the fear felt by these women and their families should be a wake up call to every single one of us. They deserve justice for their losses, and, most importantly, shouldn’t have to live in terror by being targeted on their own land. These women must receive the utmost effort in order to defend them. As a Cheyenne proverb puts it, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is finished, no matter how brave its warriors, or how strong their weapons.”