Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women are a continued genocide

The response to the continued genocide of indigenous people – more specifically, of indigenous women – has finally come to the forefront. Last week, Donald J Trump signed an executive order creating a task force that would focus on missing and murdered indigenous women, which will develop protocols for cases and create a team to review cold cases. The task force will be overseen by Attorney General Barr and Secretary Bernhardt. It is a great start but fails to address the failures of the current and previous administrations to address murdered and missing women, a continued and ongoing genocide and a perpetuation of the violence against indigenous people by colonizers, under the protections of the United States Government. Justice will not be served if we do not emphasize Native sovereignty.

Over 1.5 million Native women have experienced violence, including sexual violence. They experience violence at twice the rate for women as a general category in the US; on some reservations, the murder rate of Native women is 10 times the national average. Of the 5,712 cases of missing Native women nationwide reported, only 116 of them were logged into the US Department of Justice’s missing persons database. 

For indigenous women experiencing sexual violence, the trend is unprecedented and does not reflect national data. 97 percent of intimate partner violence and sexual assaults were estimated to be carried out by non-Native men. For the vast majority of sexual assaults carried out in the US, the survivors are of the same race as the perpetrators. The staggering percentage highlights the limits on the jurisdiction of tribal courts, which had made some headway but not enough before the current administration opposed the measures.

Under the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the inclusion of an amendment gave, for the first time, recognition that tribal courts have jurisdiction over criminal cases brought against nonmembers. This shift was still severely limited, however, because it would only apply to cases of intimate partner violence and only to non-Native people who met one of three criteria: resident of Native country, employed in Native country, or current of former intimate partner of a Native person living in Native country or a tribal member. Additionally, the tribe was required to fund the indigent defense. The obscene regulations consequently resulted in only 18 of the 562 Native Tribes meeting the requirement. Although federal jurisdiction remains the default, it is overwhelmingly characterized by unresponsiveness US prosecutors declined to prosecute 46 percent of reservation cases, with assault and sexual assault cases declined more than any other category. Authorities were unwilling to help search for missing persons or even file a report.  

Even while tribal jurisdiction was so limited that it barely made a dent in the violence that indigenous women face, opposition is constantly ramping up against it. The act, which lapsed last year, was originally opposed by then Senator Jeff Sessions who objected to expanding tribal jurisdiction to non-Native people. Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa reintroduced the reauthorization measure to make it easier to challenge tribal jurisdiction, a significant rollback of the tenuous headway that tribes had been making. 

While there is headway—in tandem with Trump’s executive order, the Senate passed a funding bill with $6.5 million to tackle the epidemic (the total spending package was $332 billion)—the consequences remain. If indigenous peoples cannot seek justice in their own courts, with their own laws, against non-Natives, how can we end the continued genocide, the continued colonization of those women? Of those mothers, sisters, aunts, people? Why do we demand they follow federal law when that law has only been there to continue to decimate their land and kill their people? Why are we not acknowledging their sovereignty, if not simply because their sovereignty was there much longer than ours? How much longer can we give paltry solutions when indigenous women are tortured and killed? 

(Infogram credit: NICOA) (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull / NPQ)