Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women on U.S. Reservations

Based on a paper written for Politics and Gender Course

By Maggie Vlaj

The 2017 film Wind River starring Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner tells the story of the rape and murder of a young Native American woman on the Wyoming Reservation Wind River. Although the heart-wrenching movie is best known as a murder mystery or thriller, its narrative is not very different than reality.

Wind River is known for extremely violent crime and poor living conditions. According to 2016 statistics, its life expectancy is 56 years old (14 years less than Iraq’s); crime is between five to seven times the national average, and high school graduation rates are only slightly above 30% (Wyoming Vital Statistics; The World Bank).  

The last still of the film Wind River reads as follows: “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women” (Wind River).

Compared to other ethnicities, Native American women are disproportionately affected by violence, with nearly 40% of Native Americans experiencing sexual assault or domestic violence in their lifetime, as stated by the U.S. Department of Justice. According to a study from the Indian Law Resource Center, Native American women are murdered at 10 times the national average, so when women first go missing, it is common to automatically assume that they are dead).

However, Native American women are also the least studied demographic in the U.S. There are no statistics available as to how many indigenous women are missing or murdered, despite the fact that the numbers are available for every other demographic.

One of the few studies on Native American communities was performed by the Department of Justice in 2010. The study found that more than 80% of indigenous women have experienced violence, with more than 50% having experienced sexual violence. Among the victims of sexual violence, 96% of women and 89% of men have “experienced sexual violence by an interracial perpetrator.”

Albeit seemingly record numbers, these must still be considered as underestimations, since accurate statistical analysis is difficult, due to the rural areas and the common fear of victims to share their abuse. Nonetheless, rape is so prevalent on reservations that it has nearly become an indigenous woman’s rite of passage.

Besides sexual assault, there is a phenomenon regarding Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). MMIW are statistically invisible, but the estimates are assumed to be much higher than other demographics of women. A rudimentary study performed under the Violence Against Women Act found that between 1979 and 1992, homicide was the third leading cause of death among indigenous women. Among those murdered, 75% were killed by family members or acquaintances.

One of the greatest obstacles in solving issues within Native communities is the difference between tribal and federal laws and regulations. Native American tribes are considered sovereign but are protected by the U.S. In this special relationship, tribes possess what is called “tribal sovereignty,” but the communities of reservations are limited by both federal and local law.

The authority of reservations, known as the tribal council, holds primary jurisdiction but has far less authoritative power. This is not only due to the functionings of the law, but also due to the lack of resources held by tribal councils.

Former U.S. attorney Troy Eid noted Colorado’s lack of consistent protocol in missing persons reports. Eid noted that “some offices may simply write down the information or may not record it all” (Pember).

The inconsistencies and carelessness of state law enforcement often reach despicable measures, and the justice system has failed Native Americans. On the Swinomish Reservation in Washington, a 30-year-old man raped a 13-year-old girl after secretly pouring alcohol into her soda. Despite a DNA match and several witness statements, federal courts dismissed the case. After the case was moved to the tribal courts, the man only served one year in jail, as it was the maximum time for rape under tribal jurisdiction.

Without delving too deep, the unequal difference in jurisdiction and lack of resources available to tribal authorities has led to rampant crime on reservation land, and the crimes committed by non-natives are often uncharged.

Until legal changes took place in 2013, non-natives committing crimes on reservations could oftentimes only be charged if caught by the tribal police. If the criminal was outside of the reservation territory, and given that the crime was not a felony, the tribal police held no authority and the victims saw no justice (U.S. Department of the Interior: Indian Affairs).

For serious crimes such as felonies, the Justice Department takes responsibility as prosecutor, but according to data, only half of the murder investigations and only two-thirds of sexual assault cases see conclusions with files charged. Additionally, federal courts dismissed 67% of sexual assault cases from reservation areas, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

In the past, some programs had been implemented in attempts to solve the problem. While they served as a symbolic role in the relationship between the U.S. government and indigenous communities, they were short-lived and had little effect.

The uncollected data on Native American women and the sexual violence they experience, combined with the rampant drug abuse, alcoholism, and violence on reservations poses a serious risk to indigenous peoples, both men and women.

Picture: https://waymagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/wind-river-03.jpg

Source: Way Magazine

Adriana DeNoble