December 14, 2018

A Federal Inquiry on MMIW?

Kara Blum

Earlier this week, the United States Senate finally held an oversight hearing on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Three Native American women testified on Wed. with personal anecdotes to the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, in an attempt to analyze the “silent crisis” of MMIWG and the perpetual violence against Native American and Alaskan Native women and girls. In the US, sexual violence against and missing and murdered rates of Indigenous women and girls is higher than any other marginalized group. Many hope that the hearing will result in a federal inquiry on MMIWG that would allocate more legislative priority and funding to the issue.

Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester asked the Senate to identify which federal agency is responsible for perpetual inaction on this issue, be it the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), or tribal law enforcement. Outgoing US Sen. Heidi Heitkamp revealed that only the BIA’s Director of Office of Justice Services, Charles Addington, stayed through the whole hearing. All other officials—from the FBI and the National Institute of Justice—left before its conclusion. The lack of officials overseeing the entirety of the hearing reveals the deeply rooted institutional and systemic racism within the US government and its officials.

“The purpose of this hearing is not to talk about if we have a problem. It’s to talk about what you’re going to do about it,” said Sen. Heitkamp. “When these crimes go uninvestigated, when they go unsolved for long, long periods of time, or ignored for long, long periods of time, that’s your failure. It’s not the community’s failure, it’s your failure.”

Earlier this month on Dec. 7, a bill known as Savanna’s Act was unanimously passed in the Senate and is now on its way to the House of Representatives. The proposed bill would require more accessibility and accurate data on MMIWG databases within the US. The act would also mandate the reporting of an annual record of MMIWG statistics to Congress. This bill was introduced by Sen. Heitkamp in Oct. of 2017, following the murder of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a soon-to-be mother and tribal member of Spirit Lake, ND. According to the National Crime and Information Center, North Dakota alone had 125 reported cases of MMIWG in 2016. This bill serves as a potential beginning of a mobilization for a federal inquiry on the MMIWG epidemic.

Following this year’s midterm elections, New Mexico’s Deb Haaland and Kansas’s Sharice Davids became the nation’s first Native American Congresswomen; one of Haaland’s top priorities is to initiate a federal inquiry on MMIWG. Haaland wants to compile a database, independent of that kept by the US federal government, due to the government’s inaccurate data and lack of investigation on MMIWG as a result of settler colonialism. There has been significant lack of Indigenous representation in government that has allowed the MMIWG epidemic to grow throughout the US and the world. However, Indigenous activists and their allies in Canada have taken steps to change this through a federal inquiry which Haaland hopes to mimic in this country.

A North American Crisis

Over the last 40 years, Native Women’s Association of Canada has worked to record and spread awareness of the sexual assault, kidnapping, and homicides of Indigenous women and girls throughout Canada. The hashtags #MMIW and #MMIWG were created by Indigenous women in Canada to mobilize a national inquiry into the issue. In 2016, after repeated demands for action to provide funding and research into the matter, the government of Canada launched an independent National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Independent from all territorial, federal, provincial and crown corporations and Indigenous forms of government, Native voices within the inquiry hope that it will display an accurate representation of the reality of rape culture and violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Canada’s inquiry is a perfect example of a settler-colonial nation-state making efforts to recognize the institutional and systemic racism and sexism within its country.

As Congresswoman-elect Haaland reiterates, the US must follow Canada’s lead and prioritize protecting and investigating the lives of Native American and Alaskan Native women and girls. Similar to the #Metoo movement that began in 2016, #NotInvisible is a hashtag created by former North Dakota Sen. Heitkamp to acknowledge the 84 percent of Native American women who have faced some form of violence throughout their lifetime—marking the first time an elected US official has created a campaign around the crisis.

When these crimes go uninvestigated, when they go unsolved for long, long periods of time, or ignored for long, long periods of time, that’s your failure. It’s not the community’s failure, it’s your failure.

– Outgoing US Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

In 2016, The National Crime and Information Center highlighted almost 6,000 reports of missing Native American and Alaskan Native women and girls in the US, but NamUs, the US Department of Justice’s (DoJ) federal missing persons database, only reported 116 cases. This data, similar to all the data organized by the US federal government, is skewed due to lack of reporting and, in effect, eradicates the lives of MMIWG. The lack of ample research investigating these women’s likelihood to experience violence or sexual assault specifically within urban areas greatly distorts the data, as around 71 percent of Native women live in urban areas in the US. NamUs creates a false perception of missing and murdered indigenous women in urban areas and perpetuates the invisibility of Native American and Alaskan Native women.

A study by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), a tribal epidemiology center, analyzes why media and law enforcement agencies misrepresent cases of MMIWG. The analysis concludes that the lack of accurate data on MMIWG is due to deeply rooted institutional bias throughout the country, resulting in the systematic oppression of People of Color—especially Native American and Alaskan Native women and girls. The UIHI received its data from the Freedom of Information Act but as the government has inaccurate data on MMIWG, the data from this study is likely lower than the actuality of MMIWG cases in the US.

Given the uncertainty around this issue, there must be a national inquiry similar to Canada in the US dedicated to accurate investigation, documentation, law enforcement, and media coverage of MMIWG.

Colonial Roots of Violence

In a settler colonial state, sexual violence and violence in general is used as a tool to dehumanize and subjugate the Indigenous populations, particularly women and girls. Settler colonialism is the contemporary social order which enforces a gendered, racist structure that results in the assimilation and eradication of Indigenous cultures and people.

According to a University of California study, during the genocide and colonization of the US, “colonizers did not just kill off Indigenous peoples in this land, but Native massacres were always accompanied by sexual mutilation and rape…It is through sexual violence that a colonizing group attempts to render a colonized peoples as inherently rapable, their land inherently invadable, and their resources inherently extractable.”

Just like Native land, Native women are subject to routine, horrifying violence by non-Native populations. It’s not just something that happened in the past. It continues into the modern day.

Proponents of a federal inquiry in the US argue that the Federal Government has codified the sexual assault and murder of Native American and Alaskan Native women. In fact, the US and other settler colonial nation-states such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia participate in what ecologist Derrick Jensen termed a “permanent social war against the bodies of women of color and Indigenous women, which threaten their legitimacy.” This social war against Native American and Alaskan Native women’s bodies dehumanizes Native American women, allowing for non-Native perpetrators to rationalize their oppression and control over the bodies of women and girls. It is no surprise that the National Crime Victim Survey data gathered by the US DoJ indicates that 67 percent of sexual assault cases reported by Native women involve non-Native offenders.

Non-Native men in the US justice system can assault Indigenous women and when they go missing, nothing happens. In fact, just earlier this month, a Native American woman was found dead in a hotel room and, unsurprisingly, the alleged perpetrator was a white man. These types of injustices are heart-wrenching, appearing in the news cycle week after week, and require immediate, decisive federal action.

America’s national rhetoric manipulates people into believing the US is an equal and fair nation, when so many are not treated equally under the law. It is the same mentality that perpetuates lies about the history of the US in textbooks, that creates culturally appropriative costumes mocking and/or hypersexualizing Native Americans on Halloween, that claims Thanksgiving is not a holiday celebrating genocide, that capitalizes on the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of Native American women and girls. The MMIWG crisis exists due to the colonial mentality that grants settlers an entitlement to use and eradicate Native American women and girls’ bodies. It is beyond time to act.

The Time is Now

Native American women experience sexual assault and rape in higher numbers than any other group of women. The statistics depict that one out of every three Indigenous women will be raped in her lifetime, while for non-Native women it is a still-appalling but far less significant one in five. Native women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault committed by a stranger or acquaintance than any other women in the US, and Native women experience higher levels of physical violence and injury during sexual assault than other women. Native women are also physically assaulted, stalked, and battered at much greater rates than non-Native women.

It is our obligation as a country to “critically interrogate the contradictions between the United States articulating itself as a democratic country…and simultaneously founding itself on the past and current genocide of Native peoples,” states Native feminist scholar Andrea Smith in “Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism.”

Native American women like Haaland have continued to resist the US’s attempt to render Native American and Alaskan Native women’s and girls’ bodies as rapable, murderable, and invisible. But the time for real, legislative change is now. Haaland’s top priority of enforcing a federal inquiry in the US on MMIWG is a necessary means that must be taken to reclaim the lives of hundreds of MMIWG throughout this country. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp took the first step in legislatively tackling the MMIWG crisis via Savanna’s Act—which hopefully passes in the House of Representatives with a majority vote in the weeks to come. Wednesday’s Senate hearing revealed the necessity of not only a federal inquiry on MMIWG, but a prioritization of increased resources for tribal lands.

The Lakota People’s Law Project stands in solidarity with the effort to halt this crisis and protect the lives of Native women and girls.