States Take on the Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Protestors at the 2019 Women's March in Washington, D.C. hold up a poster highlighting the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis (MMIW).

Protestors at the 2019 Women's March in Washington, D.C. hold up a poster highlighting the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis (MMIW). Wikimedia Commons

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Native women in some communities are killed at a rate ten times the national average. In Wisconsin, tribal advocates and lawmakers are determined to figure out what can be done about it.

In 2016, there were 5,712 reports collected by the National Crime Information Center of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women. Of those, only 116 were recorded in the U.S. Department of Justice’s official database of missing persons. This disparity—along with the statistic that Native women in some tribal communities are killed at a rate 10 times the national average— is a key point of advocates who say the criminal justice system has failed to take seriously violence against Native women. 

But this issue is also a data crisis. While there has been some DOJ-funded studies that have looked at the issue by independent organizations, there are still massive information gaps, particularly at the state and local level. 

Wisconsin is the latest state seeking to unearth more information and come up with strategies for addressing violence. Three female legislators have recently introduced a bill that would ask the state to create a task force to examine the issue and make recommendations for how the state could support tribal members who face violence. They are now seeking cosponsors in both the state Assembly and Senate.

State Rep. Amanda Stuck said she was inspired to cosponsor the bill after she watched the film Wind River, which covers the efforts of law enforcement to solve the murder of a young girl on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. “When I watched that, I thought, ‘if this was happening in Wisconsin, it would be all I hear about every day’,” she said. “Then when I saw the numbers, it was astounding how many women are missing from our own backyard.”

Stuck, a Democrat, was brought the bill by Lisa Hurst, an Oneida tribal member and a Native outreach advocate for Reach Counseling, and Renee Gralewicz, a Brothertown Citizen and Mohican descendent, and professor at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. They drafted the bill together. 

Hurst said that she was surprised no one had already taken up the issue in Wisconsin. When she started research on the issue, she received a document compiled by the state Justice Department listing 23 missing and murdered native women in the state from 1997 to 2017. “I looked at the data and realized, my goodness, there are so many tribal members who aren’t included in this data,” she said.

Hurst then relied on groups like the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and the Sovereign Bodies Institute to create legislation specific to the state’s needs. “I didn’t know that an ordinary person like me could do something like this. You can so easily get lost in political jargon and it can be very intimidating,” she said. “But someone needed to address it.”

If it passes, the bill will require a task force to be established by the state Attorney General within 45 days of its effective date. The group would be overseen by the AG and include law enforcement representation, but the bill also stipulates that the task force must have at least four members of tribal governments, at least two female tribal elders, several state legislators, victims’ rights advocates, and a tribal woman who is a survivor of gender violence.

The group will compile data, examine factors that contribute to violence against native women, which is often committed by non-Native men, identify policies that impede the investigations, and make suggestions for how the state could allocate resources to prevent violence. Their report would be due to the legislature and the president of each tribe in the state by December 2020.

Stuck said that often the absence of investigation and prosecution in cases stems from the lack of communication between tribal and state law enforcement, and a sense of distrust between Native communities and police. “Sometimes the tribes feel that law enforcement isn’t taking a case as seriously as they would if it was a non-Native woman,” she said. “So this task force is really about taking the time to intentionally sit down and build relationships and trust.”

Hurst agreed, noting that tribal community members have a sense that if it weren’t for their independently organized search parties and homemade signs hung in local businesses, the issue would be totally unaddressed. 

State Rep. Beth Meyers, another cosponsor of the legislation and a resident of the Red Cliff Indian Reservation, said the task force proposal has gotten support. “It has been a welcome announcement throughout Indian Country,” she said. “Women live in constant fear, whether it’s blatant or just a subtle nudge while we’re walking down the sidewalk at night. We’re finally acknowledging that.”

While there isn’t funding written into the bill yet, Meyers and Stuck said they want to wait for the recommendations of the task force before assuming they know what resources the state will need to provide. Hurst said she appreciates that the legislators have centered Native voices, and is enthused that a majority of the people making the eventual recommendations will be Native. “In some ways, I think there will be a common approach for the whole state,” she said. “But because a diversity of tribes will be represented, I think a lot of it will be tailored in culturally responsive ways to each tribal community.”

Several states have created similar task forces to investigate the issue in the past few years, including Wisconsin’s neighbor, Minnesota, which they looked to as a model. Washington was the first to release its report, which includes testimony from ten tribal forums across the state, in which participants said that state law enforcement agencies “are uneducated about resources or don’t seem to care” about crimes committed against Native women, leading to “significant under reporting.” Washington’s report also included testimony that chastised the lack of media coverage of these cases. 

Washington’s report, by the state police, has since faced pushback from some Native groups, including the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle, whose director, Abigail Echo-Hawk, said the report was lacking in rigor. “Washington’s report was not led by the community,” she said. “The state said that they were ‘just learning,’ but if people who were familiar with this issue had led this effort, they could have gone beyond learning to make actionable, meaningful recommendations to the legislature.” 

Echo-Hawk said that the process should have been spearheaded by community leaders, women impacted by violence, and those who provide services for victims. She also noted that while there is a place for law enforcement to be involved, and for the legislature to show support, they need to prioritize listening over leading. 

“State legislatures are making and passing these bills with the intention of doing something about a problem, but if your task force doesn’t get the information they need to make good decisions, they’re not serving their intentions well,” she said. “It’s great to see states taking actions, but if those efforts don’t result in meaningful change, that can cause further harm.”

Washington State Patrol Sgt. Monica Alexander, who led the effort, told the legislature that the agency isn’t done with the issue. “This is a beginning,” she said. “This is truly just the beginning and we are committed to continuing and seeing this through.”

While Washington’s effort was led by the state patrol and required law enforcement to collaborate with tribal leadership, the seats on the task force in Wisconsin are intended to be occupied by a majority of tribal members. Stuck said that design was intentional. “As lawmakers, we don’t want to assume that we know best,” she said. 

Both Stuck and Meyers said they’d like to see Congress take up the issue as well, so that the federal government can start providing resources to states. The U.S Interior Department’s Indian Affairs team is planning to introduce a cold case task force soon, a group that will work with the Justice Department to better utilize forensics and DNA to bring justice to Native victims. 

But before that happens, Meyers said she hopes that many more states will also start collecting data, working with tribal communities, and allocating resources. “If any state legislators are interested, they should contact us in Wisconsin,” she said. “There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Let’s work with each other, and hopefully we can create some change.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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