Indigenous Women are Going Missing at Alarming Rates — Here’s Why You Haven’t Heard About Them

missing indigenous women

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Why these cases are being underreported, and even ignored.

National attention on the tragic murders of young women like 22-year-old Gabby Petito and 23-year-old Lauren Smith-Fields in 2021 raised newfound awareness around missing person cases. But while these women received significant media attention, these cases certainly don’t tell the whole story.

In 2020 alone, there were 5,295 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, according to the National Crime Information Center. And this crisis hasn’t gotten better in recent years — just this past August, the Alaska Department of Public Safety reported 280 missing Indigenous people in a first-of-its-kind report.

Some places are worse than others. In Canada, the rise of missing and murdered Indigenous women, also known as MMIW, has been declared a “genocide.” Prime Minister Justine Trudeau started a national public inquiry to look into it in 2015, and a report was issued in 2019. Among the key findings, it found that Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or to go missing than members of any other demographic. Since the report’s release, Trudeau announced $2.2 billion in funding over the next two years to help impacted families and communities. “New funding won’t bring back the lives we have lost or heal the pain that so many feel,” Trudeau said in a statement in June 2021. “And as we move forward, we all have a role to play in ending this tragedy and telling the truth of these injustices.”

The true scope of this crisis unfortunately remains unknown: Advocates have long warned of a lack of comprehensive data from the U.S. government and states leading to concerns about the underreporting of cases. The Sovereign Bodies Institute, an Indigenous-led research organization, has been tracking missing and murdered cases like these over the past few years, by compiling data submitted by families and community members, and retrieving information from newspapers, social media, historical archives, public records, and missing person databases. 

While almost 60 percent of the reported MMIW cases are homicides, the vast majority remain unsolved. Ashley Loring Heavyrunner is among them: She was just 20 years old when she disappeared from Wyoming’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation in June 2017. Her sister, Kimberly Loring, said that Ashley had “big dreams and goals in her life” before her disappearance, and was enrolled in Blackfeet Community College as an environmental science major. Now, five years have passed and there still aren’t any answers, even after tribal police, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the FBI got involved.

In a heartbreaking coincidence, Loring Heavyrunner was personally concerned about the epidemic of missing Indigenous women and girls. “Ashley wanted to help find these missing and murdered Indigenous women and she wanted to address this — that’s one of the last conversations that I had with my sister,” Ashley’s sister, Kimberly Loring, recalls in an interview with KCM. She has since teamed up with host Payne Lindsey to investigate her sister’s case in the podcast Up and Vanished.

Jermain Charlo vanished in 2018 after leaving a bar in Missoula, Montana, and hasn’t been seen since. There was a new development in the young mother’s case in 2021, when her ex-boyfriend Michael DeFrance faced two indictments for illegally carrying a firearm around the time of Charlo’s disappearance after lying about his domestic violence conviction (which would have prevented him from acquiring a gun in the first place). Though his case went to federal trial, it remains held up in court as DeFrance’s lawyers continue to file motions to dispute the indictments.

So why haven’t these women been found yet? It has to do with a number of factors, but the most obvious may be the sheer lack of media coverage paid to women of color, in comparison to white women and men. In Wyoming, where Petito’s body was found, only 18 percent of indigenous female homicide victims get coverage, compared with 51 percent for white female and male victims. This is also known as “missing white woman syndrome,” a term coined by the late PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill, to refer to the obsession with missing or endangered white women.

This lack of coverage could also explain the lack of awareness around the fact that Indigenous women and girls face disproportionate amounts of gender violence. In fact, American Indian and Alaska Native women living on tribal lands are murdered at rates more than 10 times the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Journalist Connie Walker, a Cree from Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada, says she couldn’t help but think of Charlo when Petito’s case was making national headlines. Walker’s podcast, Stolen, takes a first-hand look into Charlo’s disappearance as part of an eight-part series. 

“If she’d had even a fraction of the attention on Gabby’s case, maybe her family wouldn’t be still wondering three years later, and struggling with not knowing the truth about what happened to her, and [it] would have helped bring her home,” Walker says. “And unfortunately, there are so many other indigenous women and girls who deserve the same kind of attention.”

Another key hurdle to solving this crisis of missing indigenous women is the patchwork laws surrounding tribal, state, and federal agencies. UCLA professor Lauren van Schilfgaarde points out that missing Indigenous cases are often disregarded by law enforcement and lost in bureaucratic gaps concerning which local or federal agencies should investigate. She warns that this is why Indigenous women have become targets for everything from murder and violence to sex trafficking. 

“The missing and murdered indigenous person’s crisis is multifaceted,” says van Schilfgaarde, who currently serves as a board member for the National Native American Bar Association. “And so we need a multifaceted response.”

“Tribes exist, tribes have the right to self-govern and the federal government. Continuing to act as this colonial power is just hurting women,” she adds.

Van Schilfgaarde believes the first step in addressing this crisis is removing the U.S. government’s limitation on tribal power, which includes amending the 1978 Supreme Court ruling, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, when Indian tribal courts lost authority to seek criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. That means tribes can’t criminally prosecute non-Indians for anything — not even for murder, explains van Schilfgaarde. 

“Congress did recognize the tribes do have jurisdiction over all Indians, regardless of what tribe you belong to,” she says. “They have not been willing to extend that to non-Indians, and that’s the problem, because statistically speaking, that’s who’s murdering and kidnapping indigenous women.”

This struggle between tribal governments and outside law enforcement hasn’t gone unnoticed by the federal government in recent years. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold the position, acknowledged that investigations into violence against Native peoples have been systematically underfunded for decades, with murders and missing persons cases often left unaddressed. That’s why Haaland has pushed for Savanna’s Act, which was signed into law in October 2020, and aimed at helping law enforcement track, solve and prevent crimes against Native Americans, particularly women and girls. She also set up the multi-agency task force, Missing and Murdered Unit, which will investigate a crisis she said was “centuries in the making.”

But advocates remain hopeful that increasing awareness coupled with additional resources will challenge the status quo and give families of these victims some long-sought-after closure. Walker says, “There’s a long way to go, but I am heartened by the fact that that people are at least understanding in 2021 that we need to be doing a better job, that there are communities, like indigenous communities, who are more disproportionately affected by this kind of violence.”

This story was originally published in October 2021 and has been updated with new reporting.