MMIW: Understanding the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Crisis

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A Brief Summarization of the Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

MMIW: Understanding the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Crisis

For the unversed, the acronym MMIW comes from the grassroots movement working to call attention to the silent genocide across North America of Indigenous women and girls. As the devastating epidemic continues to slowly gain traction in the mainstream media, the question that comes to mind for many — after what is the MMIW crisis —  is what is causing the MMIW crisis? Or how does the MMIW crisis continue to persist? When we hear that per the U.S. Department of Justice, Indigenous women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average and that homicide is one of the leading causes of death for young Indigenous women, the mind struggles to understand how that could be possible. Even for those of us who aren’t naive about the racism and misogyny of the world we live in - - the stats are harrowing and difficult to grapple with. And while there are never any easy answers, there are some clearly identifiable factors that can be attributed to the MMIW epidemic, or its newer iteration MMIWG2S, which stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirits. 

The Harrowing Statistics Behind MMIW

In addition to being murdered at  a rate 10 times higher than the national average, 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.”

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. 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.

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 both a fetishization and simultaneous systemic erasure of Indigenous women that can be found at the root of the MMIW crisis. 

Pop Culture and Indigenous Fetishization: The Pocahontas Paradox

The so-called Pocahontas Paradox, with its origins in folklore, is perpetuated in popular culture. This carefully constructed tale aims to frame cultural contact as a romance between a European man and an exotic Indigenous girl instead of a story of settlement and violence. In her paper “The Enamored Indian Princess Narrative,” Kristina Downs considers the sexual dimensions of colonization, in which the body of the colonized female serves as a metaphor for the colonized land. She asserts that “Pocahontas took on the role of the noble savage who somehow recognized the colonizer’s cultural superiority.” The Pocahontas narrative requires love and marriage between the White man and Native woman to justify the narrative of conquest and nation-building, yet, Pocahontas is believed to have been only eleven years old when she met twenty-seven-year-old John Smith. 

In Invisibility in the Color-Blind Era: Examining Legitimized Racism Against Indigenous Peoples, Dwanna L. Robertson finds that the treatment of young Native girls today bears great resemblance to the sexualized historical myth of Pocahontas—the idea that Indigenous women behave wildly, enjoy being held captive, and become sexually active at earlier ages than other racial groups of women. This stereotype fuels the fetishization of Indigenous women and girls which, in turn, creates a demand for them in human trafficking networks. One clear example of this would be the sexualized Native-princess costumes that predictably make an appearance every Halloween. 

Then there is the erasure that happens when Native women are misclassified.

The misclassification of Indigenous Women

In an article for the New York Times, writer Jack Healy described that there are several reasons why women go unreported or are reported incorrectly, describing that “women are often misclassified as Hispanic or Asian or other racial categories on missing-persons forms and that thousands have been left off a federal missing-persons database.” The misreporting leads to an understatement of the magnitude of the issue. 

The Urban Indian Health Institute found that “if a woman or girl was killed during the time their tribe was terminated, her citizenship may have never been restored when her nation was re-recognized, and she may have been falsely classified as white—or not racially classified at all—in documentation regarding her case. These cases would not be included in search results constrained to searching for records of Native American females. This is an issue that still impacts contemporary cases involving victims from tribes that are not federally recognized, and lack of recognition is an issue that disproportionately affects urban Indian communities.” 

Underreporting of missing Native women and girls

Advocates have long complained about the lack of comprehensive state and federal data on missing and murdered Native Americans, which is often linked to incidents of sexual violence and human trafficking, and they believe poor record-keeping, racial misclassification and adverse relationships between tribal governments and outside law enforcement have led to an underreporting of cases.

Per Native Women's Wilderness, as of 2016, the National Crime Information Center has reported 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. Strikingly, the U.S Department of Justice missing persons database has only reported 116 cases. The majority of these murders are committed by non-Native people on Native-owned land. The lack of communication combined with jurisdictional issues between state, local, federal, and tribal law enforcement, make it nearly impossible to begin the investigative process, leading to many cases not being reported, or accounted for, at all.  

The National Indigenous Women’s resource center theorizes that the “long-standing crisis of MMIW can be attributed to the historical and intergenerational trauma caused by colonization and its ongoing effects in Indigenous communities.” The ongoing effects and practices of colonization have included a systematic censorship of Indigenous voices within mainstream media.

The ongoing influence of Settler Colonialism

Many argue that the MMIWG2S epidemic has its true roots in 1492. Sarah Deer, author of The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America, writes that “rape in the lives of Native women is not an epidemic of recent, mysterious origin. Instead, rape is a fundamental result of colonialism.” Settler colonialism has promoted injustice through the tool of white superiority that is deeply embedded, both socially and systemically, within the culture of the United States. Misrepresentations and stereotypes in media and popular culture encourage prejudice against Native Americans, especially women, thereby inciting violence.

Professor Hilary Weaver of SUNY Buffalo analyzes the connection of colonialism and violence in an article published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, stating that prior to the colonization of Native communities, women were regarded with greater respect and often held distinguished, significant tribal roles. Colonization, however, led to a gradual culture of sexism and began the trend of violence towards Indigenous women, a legacy that continues to this day. In addition to the prevalence of sexist beliefs both outside of and within tribal communities, patriarchy has been entrenched into America’s legal system. 

Deep-seated patriarchy stems from the first European colonizers, who devalued Indigenous women and viewed them as lesser beings who could be sexually exploited and manipulated. Even with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) and subsequent Reauthorization Acts, there is incomplete protection of Indigenous women, in part due to tribal courts’ lack of true sovereignty. 

Deer outlines systemic colonization of the land and the relationship to Missing and Murdered Indigenous women by asserting that the breakdown of tribal sovereignty and tribal jurisdiction over violent crimes is inextricably tied to the colonization of the land and the resulting colonization over Indigenous bodies. One modern-day example of this is in the resource colonization of male-dominated industries like fracking, or in the words of scholar Skylar Joseph,  “resource extraction is a contemporary manifestation of settler colonialism.” 

“Man-camps,” or male-dominated industries near Native communities

In an article for Greenpeace, Kaitlin Grable noted that environmentally damaging industries, such as mining, logging, and fossil fuels account for “some of the largest perpetuating factors of violence, trafficking, and murder against Indigenous women. They bring an influx of transient male workers to rural areas, often near Reservations, where they live in ‘man camps’.” 

In North Dakota, the Bakken ‘oil boom’ and resulting arrival of thousands of workers to the area brought with it a surge in rates of violent crime and aggravated assault. The state had at least 125 cases of missing Indigenous women during this time. According to one report, sexual assaults on women on the Fort Berthold reservation increased by 75%. Conversely, there was no corresponding rise of violent crimes in the counties outside of the Bakken oil region. In fact, the overall crime rate decreased during this time. 

Moreover, a lack of funding and resources for Native law enforcement only exacerbates the issue. Pipelines are typically routed through rural areas in which local law enforcement (often already stretched thin) is tasked with jurisdiction over hundreds of miles of territory. With an influx in populations of regional outsiders, law enforcement can be overwhelmed and overworked for months. Further complicating the issue is that most perpetrators from the camps are non-native, and the Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe prevents tribal governments from prosecuting non-Indians, leaving Native women and girls increasingly vulnerable. 

Such experiences of Indigenous people are not unique just to the United States. The increase in violent acts that follow “man camps” of the oil industry have been documented in Canada to the extent that Canada’s federal government recently released a report on MMIW in which it identified “man camps” of the fossil fuel industry as hotbeds for violence.

The continued need for honest discourse

While none of the above reasons offer particularly “neat,” or simple solutions (in contrast, they are all complex factors that contribute to the MMIWG2S epidemic), they are all still an essential part of the system that allows for both the crime and the environment where we all collectively look away and pretend it isn’t happening. To have any hope whatsoever that things might change, it’s  imperative that we understand the causation and parts of what enables the issue to persist for so long.

The MMIWG2S movement, gaining traction in large part thanks to social media, brings awareness and implores that we stop looking away and acknowledge that there’s a deep-rooted problem, and it’s killing our Native sisters.

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