by Ryan Phelan
The statistics surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States are staggering. Despite more than 5,700 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women being reported nationally in 2016, just 116 of those cases were logged. Murder is the third leading cause of death among Indigenous and Alaskan Native women. Rates of violence are 10 times higher on reservations than the national average.
Speakers at “No More Stolen Sisters,” a Nov. 15 gathering organized by the Seattle-area Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s group and Radical Women, focused on the factors behind these statistics, failures in data collection and how to legally address the epidemic.
“We know that it’s a problem that is widespread and has been ignored for far too long,” said Gina Petry, an organizer for Radical Women, a South Seattle-based socialist feminist organization. “Not enough attention is paid to why it is happening and the way that systems have not addressed it.”
Radical Women has been fighting for Indigenous causes for many years, said Sarah Scott, who chaired the meeting at New Freeway Hall. She said state and federal bodies are pushing legislation to combat the issue.
“Without a comprehensive database we really aren’t sure what the numbers are,” said Earth-Feather Sovereign, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington, and the founder of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Washington. She was also one of the speakers at the “No More Stolen Sisters” event.
Racial misclassification often creates a lack of reliable data. Indigenous peoples are often misclassified as white or another race, according to the study. The study also cites institutional racism, and poor relationships between Indigenous communities, law enforcement and the media as other reasons behind the lack of information about missing Indigenous women and girls.
The meeting included a presentation documenting abuse of Indigenous women, in order to raise awareness of the issue. According to the presentation, 2010 Department of Justice study on violence against Indigenous and Alaskan Native women and men found that more than 56 percent of Native American women had experienced sexual violence. Of those, more than 90 percent had experienced violence at the hands of a non-tribal member.
In addition, 40 percent of surveyed women involved in sex trafficking across the U.S. and Canada in 2015 identified as Indigenous or Alaskan Native, according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Policy Research Center. However, in the four sites surveyed, Indigenous women accounted for less than 10 percent of the population.
Within Washington, Indigenous women are at particular risk due to their proximity to Interstate 5, which provides gangs and cartels easy access and human trafficking, Sovereign said. Some believe that tribal casinos also represent high-risk areas for sex trafficking and the abuse of sex workers.
“The first missing and murdered people came from Columbus himself,” said Eva Ingram, the owner and operator of Independent Two Spirit Media, a nonprofit media source promoting Native activism. “The ways of the Spanish, the English, and the French. They came here to these lands. They stole our people. They hurt our people. They killed them.”
The term, “Two Spirit,” which is included under the umbrella of LGBTQIA, refers traditionally to Indigenous male, female and intersex individuals who occupy an alternative gender status and role within Indigenous communities.
“There is no number for us Two Spirit people,” Ingram said. “If you ask yourself why, it’s because we are misgendered so much, it’s ridiculous. There are so many transgender Native American people out there.”
Misgendering provides another barrier to accurate documentation, as there are no clear statistics on the number of Two Spirit people who are missing or murdered, Ingram said.
“It’s not only Natives. It’s every race,” said Raymond Kingfisher, an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous men. “Women are under attack 24 hours a day, no matter what.”
Lawmakers at the state and federal level are attempting to improve data collection on missing and murdered Indigenous people. These efforts include Savanna’s Act, federal legislation that would require law enforcement organizations to annually report the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to the DOJ. It would also provide tribes with access to federal crime databases. On Nov. 14, the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs voted to send the bill for review by the full Senate.
With more accurate data, authorities believe they would be able to solve more cases.
“It’s my belief that the stem and origin of all the missing and murdered Indigenous women is racism,” Kingfisher said. “That’s one thing that we continuously fight in this United States and throughout the world.”
Speakers Earth-Feather Sovereign, Eva Ingram and Sarah Scott listen as Raymond Kingfisher addresses the audience at the New Freeway Hall on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. Kingfisher was involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and now helps advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people. (Photo: Ryan Phelan)