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Know the West

The crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women

The response to a disproportionate problem is falling short.


Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

May 5 marks the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. While the 2016 #NoDAPL and #MeToo movements have helped bring attention to Indigenous and women’s issues in general, little has been done at a policy level to address the high numbers of women who go missing in Indian Country.

U.S. Congress has taken some action, but change has been slow, and the scope of the problem is only now being better understood. In Washington state, Native Americans make up less than 2 percent of the population, but they represent more than 5 percent of its missing persons cases. Nationally, it is non-Native men who commit the majority of assaults against Native women. State lawmakers are just now starting to collect data, Crosscut reported. The legislation’s main supporter, State Rep. Gina McCabe, R-Goldendale, wants local law enforcement and the state government to work with and share data with tribal police departments. “There’s currently no comprehensive data collection system for reporting or tracking missing Native American women,” McCabe told Crosscut. “That’s a travesty, and I know Washington can do better.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee met with tribal leaders in 2016, including Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Brian Cladoosby. In March 2018, Inslee signed a bill to assist with the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Washington isn’t the only place where the lack of communication between state and local law enforcement and tribal police departments contributes to the problem of violence against Native women. Tribal prosecutors and law enforcement lack the jurisdiction to try non-Native men who perpetrate violence against Indigenous women in tribal lands, due to a 1973 Supreme Court decision. It was not until 2013 that a provision in the Violence Against Women Act gave tribal governments more authority in cases of domestic violence. But the provision is limited. The law only gives tribal courts jurisdiction to prosecute non-tribal citizens for a narrow set of crimes, which do not include “crimes against children, law enforcement personnel, and sexual assault crimes committed by strangers.”

So far, the provision has not been widely adopted by tribal governments. A National Congress of American Indians report this year found that only 18 tribes have utilized Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction, the program created by the provision. Many tribes reported they were unable to participate because of a lack of funding. “Tribes express continued frustration at their inability to prosecute these crimes — many of which occur in conjunction with a domestic violence offense — often with dangerous and devastating consequences for victims,” the NCAI reported.

But to get back some of that sovereign authority, tribes also have to give some up. When VAWA became law in 2013, it also required juries to have a fair cross-section of the public, meaning tribal courts have to allow non-tribal citizens to serve on juries, which prompts some obvious questions. “How do we, as an Indian tribe, want to open up our court system to non-Indians?” Assistant Attorney General for the Cherokee Nation Chrissi Nimmo told USA Today last year. “It’s always been Cherokees. How do we carve out this special seating?”

Within the 18 tribal nations exercising special jurisdiction in cases of domestic violence, NCAI reports 74 convictions of abusers over the past five years. That’s a measure of success, yes, but there are 567 federally recognized tribes in this country. Imagine how many more convictions we would see if even half of those nations participated. Imagine the message that would send to non-Native men who see Indigenous women as easy prey. Imagine how many of those men would be taken off the streets. I don’t know about you, but Im tired of imagining.


Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.