Mary Annette Pember
Supporters stop in prayer during the Sing Our Rivers Red march in Fargo, North Dakota along the Red River on Valentines Day, 2016.

Missing and Murdered: No One Knows How Many Native Women Have Disappeared

Mary Annette Pember
4/11/16

This piece was published in partnership with Rewire. This is the first installment of a three-part series about the missing and murdered Native women in the United States and Canada.

Although Trudi Lee was only 7 when her big sister went missing back in 1971, she wept when she talked about that traumatic event 45 years later. “Sometimes I would catch our mom crying alone,” Lee said. “She would never tell me why, but I knew it was over Janice.”

Janice was 15 when she went missing near the Yakama reservation in Washington. Although her parents reported her missing to tribal law enforcement, there was never any news of the lively, pretty girl. “Mom died in 2001 without ever knowing what happened,” Lee said. “We still think of Janice and would at least like to put her to rest in the family burial plot.”

“It happens all the time in Indian country,” said Carmen O’Leary, coordinator of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains in South Dakota, a coalition of Native programs that provide services to women who experience violence. “When Native women go missing, they are very likely to be dead.”

Indeed, on some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average, according to U.S. Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, who presented that gruesome statistic while addressing the Committee on Indian Affairs on Violence Against Women in 2011.

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Unlike Canada, where indigenous leaders and advocates have pressured the government to begin to confirm the numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women, the U.S. has done little to address the issue.

Although the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) have helped bring attention to this high rate of violence and have begun to address gaps in law enforcement for tribes and federal authorities, there is no comprehensive data collection system regarding the number of missing and murdered women in Indian country.

Under VAWA 2005, a national study authorized by Congress found that between 1979 and 1992 homicide was the third leading cause of death among Native females aged 15-34, and that 75 percent were killed by family members or acquaintances.

And that horrific toll might actually be higher. “The number of missing Native women was not addressed in the study,” noted Jacqueline Agtuca, lawyer and policy consultant for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, (NIWRC). “Currently, we do not have adequate information on the numbers of missing Native women in the U.S.”

The high rates of sexual violence against Native women are inextricably tied to the likelihood of them going missing; violence, disappearance and murder are closely interconnected. “Tribal leaders, police officers, and prosecutors tell us of an all-too-familiar pattern of escalating violence that goes unaddressed, with beating after beating, each more severe than the last, ultimately leading to death or severe physical injury,” Perrelli said in his 2011 speech.

According to advocates like O’Leary, there is little hard data about missing and murdered women, only anecdotes that tell of the pain, loss and anger of loved ones. “Missing and murdered Native women are a non-story in this country. You really don’t hear about them unless you happen to know the family. Officially, these cases seem to get brushed under the rug. No one wants to talk about them,” she said.

Indeed, law enforcement officials questioned by ICTMN seemed reluctant to discuss the issue.

According to NamUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, there are approximately 40,000 unidentified human remains either in the offices of the nation’s medical examiners and coroners or that were buried or cremated before being identified. NamUs, operated by the U.S. Department of Justice, (DOJ) is a national repository and resource center for missing persons and unidentified decedent records. It offers a free online search system.

Troy Eid, former U.S. attorney for the state of Colorado notes that protocols for taking missing person’s reports and sharing with other agencies vary widely among tribal law enforcement. “Some offices may simply write down the information or may not record it at all,” Eid said.

Eid served on the Indian Law and Order Commission created under TLOA. After two years of field research, he and fellow commissioner released the report, “A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer,” in 2013. The report describes law enforcement jurisdiction in Indian country as “an indefensible morass of complex, conflicting and illogical commands,” and blames the U.S. government for creating the situation.

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