A Silent Genocide: The MMIW crisis

Wood with a red-painted hand print.

The ignored crisis that needs to end

MMIWG2S: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirits

No matter how we feel about them, hashtags are powerful tools. Criticism abounds that hashtag activism is superficial; that it merely virtue signals support but doesn’t actually effect change. But for some communities, when repeated pleas to the media and police go ignored, hashtags help get the word out. They bring awareness to an issue and, with enough repetition, garner it more visibility. You might have seen the hashtag #MMIW or its newer adaptation #MMIWG2S and wondered: what is MMIW? Both stand for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, the latter adding G2 for Girls and Two-Spirits. At this time of this writing, #MMIW has 179k posts on Instagram and is trending on Tiktok with a total of 439 million views. The hashtag was created after the grassroots movement of the same name, calling attention to the silent genocide across North America of Indigenous women and girls, in the hopes of spreading awareness, and getting much needed support in real life.

How did the MMIW movement start?

The movement originated among First Nations activists in Canada working to raise awareness about the high rates of violence Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people experience in the United States and Canada. Some attribute the People’s First Gathering on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in 2015 as the somewhat official start of MMIW but this KairosCanada.org timeline lends an unofficial start in 2002 with a founding of the National Coalition for our Stolen Sisters. 2015 is also the year the Canadian government was compelled by activists to initiate a national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women which was in part propelled by the statistic that between the years 1980 and 2012, Indigenous women and girls represented 16% of all female homicides in Canada, while constituting only 4% of the female population in Canada.

Several landmark events including the January 20, 2018, Native-American-woman-led Seattle Womxn’s March, the 2020 MMIW awareness march in Minneapolis and corresponding bill proposed to Minnesota lawmakers in 2019 to establish an MMIW task force, and documentaries including Say Her Name and Bring Her Home, have brought awareness to the epidemic. The heart of the movement is a call to action and a demand for lawmakers, law enforcement, the media, and the general public to pay attention to the crisis of violence inflicted on Native women for centuries.

No More Stolen Sisters and the Red Hand Symbol

Appearing alongside #MMIW is the other deeply-felt rallying cry of “no more stolen sisters,” as well as the quietly searing image of a blood-red hand over the mouth, which has become symbolic of the movement. Aside from the apparent representation of bloody violence, of literal blood on the hands, the hand symbolizes the silencing of Indigenous voices; voices which continue to be unheard. It symbolizes the continued and deafening silence of the media and law enforcement. The use of the red hand symbol, in both art and in protest, indicates solidarity and support for #NoMoreStolenSisters.

The Highway of Tears

One cannot speak about the MMIW crisis without noting The Highway of Tears,” referring to the 430-mile stretch of Highway 16 from Prince George to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, which has been the site of the murder and disappearance of a number of mainly Indigenous women since 1969. Many people hitchhike along this stretch of highway because they do not own cars and there is a lack of public transit. The Highway of Tears murders have led to initiatives by the BC government to dissuade women from hitchhiking, such as billboards along the highway warning women of the potential risks. Numerous documentaries have focused on the victims associated with this highway. The Canadian media often refer to the highway in coverage of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit people in Canada.

In response to the Highway of Tears crisis, the Royal Canadian Mountain Police in BC launched Project E-Pana in 2005. It initiated an investigation of nine murdered women, launching a task force in 2006. In 2007, it added an additional nine cases, which include cases of both murdered and missing women along Highways 16, 97, and 5. The task force consists of more than 50 investigators, and cases include those from the years 1969 to 2006.

The Harrowing Statistics Behind MMIW

Per the U.S. Department of Justice, Indigenous women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average and homicide is one of the leading causes of death for young Indigenous women (3rd for women age 10-24, 5th for 25-44). The National Crime Information Center reports that in 2016 alone, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the US Department of Justice’s federal missing person database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases. Undoubtedly enabling the circumstances that allow for these shocking statistics of the murdered and missing, there’s a systemic erasure of Indigenous women

A 2014 report by the Royal Canadian Mountain Police found that more than 1,000 Indigenous women were murdered over a span of 30 years. From 2001 to 2015, the homicide rate for Indigenous women in Canada was almost six times as high as the homicide rate for other women. 

According to the Minnesota Law Review, “Native American women suffer sexual assault at a much higher rate and with more serious consequences than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. Further, such rapes are overwhelmingly committed by individuals outside the Native American community. Most non-Indian perpetrators, however, go unpunished. The Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe prevents tribal governments from prosecuting non-Indians, and the federal and state prosecutors who have authority often decline to prosecute.” But to be clear, this erasure of Indigenous voices happens outside of Native territory as well. One such infamous case is that of Marlene Gabrielsen. 

Ghosts of Highway 20: The silencing of Marlene Gabrielsen

Chronicled in a five-part documentary series called Ghosts of Highway 20 about previously unknown serial killer John Ackroyd, is the sadly not surprising, yet nevertheless striking story of Marlene Gabrielson. Marlene Gabrielson grew up as a member of the Inupiaq people in Alaska and is Ackroyd's first (known) and only surviving victim. After surviving a violent rape by Ackroyd, Marlene came forward to police, and had she not been dismissed, the documentary contends, Ackroyd would not have been able to go on to commit more rapes that would eventually escalate to at least four known murders. There was physical evidence corroborating Gabrielsen's account of the rape and she went to the hospital to get a forensic evidence exam immediately after the assault yet the police remained skeptical of her account. 

Investigators talked to Marlene’s mother-in-law, too. She recalled how Marlene had arrived at her house, sobbing, saying something terrible had happened. She handed police a brown paper bag with clothes Marlene wore on the night of the attack. At the hospital, an officer noted scratches on Marlene’s back. Marlene’s rape kit showed vaginal swelling and bruising and abrasions on her back and legs. She went to police and showed them her pants which had been torn from the crotch to her ankles, her underwear, which had been cut with a knife, and her slashed boots. Despite this physical evidence, police minimized Marlene’s accounting of events, interviewing her several times, and focusing on minor inconsistencies in her story. They had her take a polygraph and concluded she was not telling the truth. 

Voice recordings in the documentary show a disparity in the tone of police questioning of Marlene - antagonizing, belittling, skeptical/cynical, and in sharp contrast, the “interviews,” with Ackroyd are pleasant and friendly. With the white man, the white investigators joke around and even help guide his answers to their questions. Ackroyd himself details to another police officer, several years later, that the police in that initial investigation assured him that he shouldn’t worry because “this probably will not come to court.” A sergeant’s conclusion went into a typed report, which was placed in a file: Marlene was lying. He offered no explanation. 

More than two years later, another set of investigators went looking for the police report detailing Marlene’s account. A state police sergeant and a lieutenant from a local sheriff’s office tracked down Marlene at home. She recounted the attack in detail, how the man cut off her underwear and boots. She’d hung onto the damaged boots and showed them to the men. The investigators left. They noted in their report how the original officers had failed to pursue the rape case even though physical evidence corroborated Marlene’s account.

“They made me feel like a smelly, drunken Native,” Gabrielsen says of her interactions with police. “So, I just shrank... if they only would've listened to me, it could all have been avoided. All of it.” Gabrielsen did everything she could to prevent Ackroyd from hurting more women, but he wasn't seriously investigated until he hurt a white woman. 

When White Women Go Missing Aka Missing White Woman Syndrome

The blatant and systemic racism (and misogyny) that allows Marlene Gabrielson to be dismissed and worse, gaslit, by the police, is the same system that enables the silence behind MMIW. Afterall, we’ve all heard of Gabby Petito. The news media made sure of it. But we don’t hear about the numerous cases of brown and black bodies that go missing -at the same time, in the same area- because those lives do not warrant the media frenzy, the compassion, or the concern. Petito’s case led to renewed calls for people to pay greater attention to cases involving missing Indigenous women and other people of color, with some describing the intense coverage of her disappearance as “missing white woman syndrome.”

Without explicitly mentioning race, Petito’s own stepfather was gracious enough to spotlight the need for media attention and coverage for all missing people. He said “I want to ask everyone to help all the people that are missing and need help…if you don’t do that for other people that are missing, that’s a shame, because it’s not just Gabby that deserves that. So look to yourselves on why that’s not being done.”

Between 2011 and 2020, more than 700 Indigenous women went missing in Wyoming, where Petito was found. According to a January report published by the state, 21% of missing Indigenous people remain missing for 30 days or longer, whereas only 11% of white people remain missing for that long. The report also noted that just 18% of cases of missing Indigenous women in Wyoming over the past decade received any media coverage.

MMIW on mainstream television

T.V. show Alaska Daily, which debuted in 2022, about a white journalist who leaves her prestigious New York gig to work for a small-town newspaper in Alaska, features a storyline that covers “white woman syndrome.” The paper decides to pursue a story where they break down the different treatment 2 missing women (one white, one Native) are receiving from both the state’s resources and the media. Aside from the unrelenting media coverage, there are helicopters and swat teams searching for the white woman. A politician unabashedly admits that at least 1 million dollars has been spent to find the missing white woman. 

As for the Native woman, the blip of media coverage she receives essentially victim blames her, insinuating she had a drinking problem. There are no swat teams or helicopters or million-dollar budgets, either. Just her loved ones showing up and looking to their own community to conduct searches; to spread the word. A particularly poignant scene depicts the mother of the missing Native woman sitting in her living room, making missing-person flyers for her daughter as the T.V. in the background continues to cover the missing white woman. 

It cannot be dismissed as a mere plot line of a fictional show because the show depicted the reality of the world. It was another variation of Marlene’s story, and of thousands upon thousands of Native women like her, who do not apparently warrant the same treatment as their white counterparts.

Whether it’s the uptick in the use of the #MMIW hashtag or not, shows like Alaska Daily are indication that the word is getting out, awareness is reaching the mainstream. Since 2020, we’ve seen more Native representation on television with shows like Reservation Dogs, Three Pines, and even a #MMIW plotline on the hugely successful show Yellowstone, might indicate that the mainstream is no longer looking away from the problem, no longer brushing it under the proverbial rug. And if that is the case, one can only hope that with greater visibility and awareness, comes support, protection, and real change.

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