As we move into the new year and a new decade, the public outcry for justice for missing and murdered Native women has reached a level compelling Congress and the Administration to respond. In 2019, six bills were introduced in the House and Senate; the President issued a National Day of Awareness MMIW proclamation and created the “Operation Lady Justice” initiative, and the Senate passed the National Day of Awareness Proclamation. Yes, these actions all appear to be steps forward, but unfortunately Congress did not pass any of the proposed bills to increase the safety of Native women.
The Sovereignty of Indian Nations to Protect Native Women: Authority and Resources
From the beginning, Indian nations and the United States engaged in international relations as sovereigns. Indian nations held full authority as sovereigns and provided broad protections for their women, citizens, and peoples, within their respective territories. As the United States began to erode the sovereignty of Indian nations and failed to fulfill its federal trust responsibility, the protections afforded Native women diminished. Women were targeted by government agents, clergymen, and the general public.
The broad scale of atrocities committed by the United States upon Indian Nations, and specifically women, provided the basis for the growth of societal acceptance of violence against Native women. The layers of Congressional Acts, Presidential Orders, and Supreme Court rulings have, through the course of history, given legal color to what the United Nations defines as genocide. The eras of the Indian Wars, removal, assimilation, boarding schools, termination, forced sterilization, and other failed governmental policies attempted to destroy the original protections afforded Native women within their Nations.
A Crisis Created by the United States
The current crisis of Missing and Murdered Native Women is not new. It is the total sum of the current spectrum of violence—domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, physical assaults, kidnapping, and murder—documented in federal reports, research, and statistics. More importantly, it is recorded in the lived experiences of Native women and the collective memories of their families and communities.
Why are the victimization rates for Native women not viewed as a national crisis? Why has the government not acted to hold offenders accountable to stop the violence? The harsh reality that more than 4 in 5 American Indian women (84.3 percent) have experienced violence, more than half have experienced sexual violence (56.1 percent), and more than half (55.5 percent) have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner are a telling statement of social and governmental acceptance for these crimes.
The societal hatred, dehumanization, and violence committed against Native women is a cultural extension of the past genocide committed by the United States. While reforming the laws and infrastructure that permitted the genocide is one task, a second task involves the cultural reeducation of mainstream America to understand both the past and present truths of American Indian Nations and the women of those Nations.
Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is one example of a political process to analyze including the concentration on government accountability for the murders of Indigenous women and girls. The report from the Inquiry released in May of 2019 said: “Genocide is the sum of the social practices, assumptions, and actions detailed within this report.” The Inquiry held 24 hearings across Canada, and at least 2,380 people attended, including the families of those killed or missing. While not complete or a perfect process, it is one far in advance of the United States.
The Movement for Safety and Justice for Native Women
The crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women has become a national issue because of the demands for justice by Native women, their families, and tribal nations. This movement has brought missing and murdered Indigenous women into the national spotlight and is holding Congress and this Administration responsible. Many local reforms are also underway and will continue because the movement will not turn back and accept government tolerance and inaction to this crisis.
While the necessary legislative path forward is complicated, it is also not unknown. Indian tribes for more than a decade have amplified their collective voices to make strong recommendations to government officials during the annual violence against women tribal consultation to address this crisis and call for immediate action. Tribal leaders have consistently reiterated that to address the crisis, full tribal sovereignty must be restored with adequate resources to implement such authority to fully protect women.
Congress has the opportunity to make these necessary changes. Pending legislation introduced in 2019 provide reforms to strengthen the authority of Indian nations to protect women including critical resources to implement expanded protections. Legislation including reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and the Family Violence Prevention Services Act, amending the Victims of Crime Act, and numerous stand-alone bills specifically addressing missing and murdered Indigenous women were drafted in cooperation with tribal leaders and advocates and are waiting to become law.
For the United States, Congress, and Administration to be accountable and fulfill their trust responsibility, a groundswell of Indian tribes and a national social justice movement must continue to demand the changes needed to protect Native women. The United States has the authority and the resources to end the crisis but has not demonstrated the will. The willpower must come from the movement in its determination and dedication to restoring safety for Native women. In this highly politically charged election year, the safety of Native women should not be based on partisan politics, or the politics of profit and power over others.
Jacqueline “Jax” Agtuca
Editor, Restoration of Native Sovereignty and Safety for Native Women Magazine