A look into why cases are being underreported and ignored
The national spotlight on the tragic murder of 22-year-old Gabby Petito has raised newfound awareness around missing person cases, but could it be just the tip of a much larger crisis? Just last year, a report from the nonprofit Sovereign Bodies Institute found that more than 4,000 Indigenous women and girls vanished across the U.S. and Canada — and there may be countless 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 and, as we move forward, we all have a role to play in ending this tragedy and telling the truth of these injustices,” Trudeau said in a statement in June.
But the true scope of the crisis remains unknown and the 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 such missing and murdered cases over the past few years by compiling data submitted by families and community members, and retrieved from newspapers, social media, historical archives, public records, and missing person databases.
While almost 60 percent of the reported cases are homicides, the vast majority remain unsolved. Ashley Loring Heavyrunner is among these cases. She was just 20 years old when she disappeared from Wyoming’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation in June 2017. Her sister, Kimberly Loring, said 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, four years have passed and there still aren’t any answers, even after the FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs got involved in the case.
“One thing is that 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 true podcast, Up and Vanished.
But Ashley’s not alone. Similarly, 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 this past September when her ex-boyfriend Michael DeFrance pleaded not guilty to charges related to the illegal possession of firearms and ammunition after he was convicted of a misdemeanor of domestic violence in 2013. While his trial remains up in the air, a Missoula police detective confirmed to The Missoulian that the indictment is related to an investigation into Charlo’s disappearance. DeFrance was in possession of the prohibited firearms and ammunition right around the time of Charlo’s disappearance, according to court documents.
So why haven’t these women been found yet? It has to do with a number of factors, but the most obvious one 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 lack of coverage could 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 ten 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 had had even a fraction of the attention of 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 would have help bringing her home,” Walker tells us. “And unfortunately, I think that there are so, 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 says 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 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. And so we need a multifaceted response,” says van Schilfgaarde, who currently serves as a board member for the National Native American Bar Association.
“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.
She believes the first step in addressing this crisis is removing the U.S. government’s limitation on tribal power and that 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-Indian, 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 the Savanna’s Act, which was signed into law last year 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.”