Tribal leaders sharply criticized the federal response to the crisis of MMIW during the 2019 annual consultation. Their pointed statements expressed both concerns and recommendations to address the crisis. These statements reflect the urgency expressed by community actions across the country, calling for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“This social justice movement grew out of the reality that Native women go missing daily, often because of the lack of tribal advocacy services and lack of response by law enforcement,” said Liz Carr, Senior Native Affairs Advisor. “The federal response to the crisis of MMIW is a failure and human rights violation. We cannot continue to ignore the importance of a fully resourced local, tribal response to prevent abductions and murders. It is a continuation of the history of genocide committed against the indigenous peoples of this country.”
Homicide is a leading cause of death for Native women. Violence against Native women and girls has been wrongfully normalized in this country since contact. Historically, rape of Native women was not considered a crime and continues to result in a minimal response by the government. The current lack of response increases the vulnerability of Native women and girls to predators and abusers.
The MMIW Crisis is an Extension of Failed Federal Indian Law and Policies
The U.S. Congress apologized for the long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the federal government regarding Indian tribes and offered an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.1 Yet, concern alone will not create the changes needed to address the MMIW crisis.
“This is not a new problem. It is an old problem. Traditionally Native women were respected. But today we face levels of violence greater than any other group of women. This violence touches every family. Every tribe has Native women and girls who are missing or have been murdered. Since my daughter Hanna went missing and was found murdered, I have become very aware of how large a problem we face as Native women and as tribes. Bad people commit these horrible crimes against Native women, but it is the system that allows it to happen generation after generation.”—Malinda Limberhand, Mother of Hanna Harris, a Member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe
Old and outdated laws that the United States, the United Nations, and Indian tribes recognize as barriers to the safety and justice for Native women must be changed. The high rates of violence, murder, and disappearances are not a mystery given the legal barriers preventing Indian tribes from protecting women in their communities. The crisis of missing and murdered Native women and girls is the extension of these anti-Indian laws and leave women and girls vulnerable and unprotected.
“This is such a national tragedy that is increasing in awareness. The question is always why it is so disproportionately high. It is so complicated, but the tragic truth is that colonization, its laws, and policies, have endangered Alaska Native and American Indian women and children in their communities. These perpetrators come in and realize there are no consequences to their actions and are emboldened to do whatever they do. They realize that there is a lack of infrastructure and resources, that there is no quick protection and justice to hold perpetrators accountable. It sends the wrong message about the care of our people. We are just as valuable as anyone else in this nation.”—Michelle Demmert, Co-Chair, NCAI Task on Violence Against Women.
Tribal Recommendations: Federal Actions Needed
Indian tribes passionately expressed the urgent need for Congress and federal departments to take action to prevent the further loss of women and girls. Their message, in short, was until Indian tribes have the full authority and resources to protect women and their children the crisis of MMIW will continue. Services for women and immediate action at the local level is essential to saving the lives of Native women and girls. Tribal leaders provided specific reforms as recommendations for immediate action.
Congressional champions have responded to the concerns raised, and five legislative bills were introduced this year to respond to the calls for safety and justice. Four of the bills are included in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019 that passed the House last April.
Tribal 2019 Recommendations to Address MMIW Crisis:
- Authority to Protect Women and Children. Restoration of the full authority of Indian tribes to protect Native women and their children. The House passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019 on April 4, 2019, and it is a step towards achieving this recommendation. Federal departments should support a Senate version of H.R. 1585
- Resources to Support Healing of Victims, Families, and Communities. The USDOJ Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), Office of Victims of Crime (OVC), the US HHS Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) and Indian Health Services (HIS) provide support for increased tribally-based victim services to the families, and community members of the MMIW as provided for by the SURVIVE Act. Such services should include counseling for the children of the disappeared, burial assistance, community healing activities such as walks for justice to honor the disappeared or murdered, community meals, and other tribal activities.
- DOJ and DOI review, revise, and create law enforcement and justice protocols appropriate to the disappearance of Native women and girls, including inter-jurisdictional issues as provided by the Savannah’s Act and the Not Invisible Act.
- Support the Government Accountability Office efforts to prepare and submit a report on the response of law enforcement agencies to reports of missing or murdered Indians, including recommendations for legislative solutions as provided by the Studying the Missing and Murdered Indian Crisis Act.
- NIJ fully implement the VAWA 2005 program of research and specifically provide Indian tribes information regarding the disappearance and murder of Native women and girls.
- Coordinate efforts in consultation with Indian tribes to increase the response of state governments, where appropriate, to cases of the disappearance or murder of Native women or girls.
1. Apology to Native Peoples, 2009, S.J.Res. 14, available at https://www.congress.gov/bill/111th-congress/senate-joint-resolution/14/text.