Study of missing and murdered Indigenous women highlights police data failures

Poor data collection by law enforcement creates a significant hurdle to understanding the crisis.


A landmark report from the Seattle Indian Health Board’s Urban Indian Health Institute paints a critical picture of law enforcement, data collection and media coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in the United States. There is no authoritative accounting of MMIWG in the U.S., but it is estimated that in Canada, up to 4,000 women have gone missing or been murdered over the last several decades.

The study, issued Wednesday, Nov. 14, documents 506 unique cases in 71 cities across the country, most notably in the West. The report shifts focus from rural reservations and tribal communities, which have been hit hard by the crisis, to urban areas. Today, 71 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in towns and cities, yet little to no research has been done on violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women in urban areas.

Of the 71 cities listed in the report, Seattle ranked number one, with 45 identified cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Albuquerque came in second, with 37 cases. The matter is further complicated by the fact that half the cases in Albuquerque are not categorized as “murdered” or “missing” people because the local police did not so categorize the cases. According to the report, the Albuquerque Police Department was one of six law enforcement agencies that failed to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

“That’s a database and a system being complicit in the erasure and the genocide of Native people. If there is no data on us, we don’t exist,” said Abigail Echohawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute and a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. “No matter where (Native women are), whether in the data or in the media, they completely disappear.”

Researchers gathered the data from Albuquerque from missing persons databases, news reports, social media and interviews with family members.

Attendees of Native American Indian Lobby Day gather in Washington’s Capitol building to protest MMIWG in January. Authors of a new report hope the new data will push policymakers to recognize the issue and take action.
Ted S. Warren/AP Images

The report’s database goes back to the 1940s, but two-thirds of the cases collected occurred between 2010 and 2018. And researchers emphasized that the scope of the problem is likely much greater than that, given the amount of data that appears to be missing. The reasons range from underreporting and poor record keeping to institutional racism in the media and poor relationships between law enforcement and Indigenous communities. Echohawk says that this creates yet another obstacle for the government agencies and lawmakers who rely on such data to make their policy decisions.

Of the 506 cases cited in the study, 95 percent were not covered by media outside of their local market. One case received 47 percent of the national coverage — that of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe who was pregnant when she was murdered by her Fargo, North Dakota, neighbor in 2017.

Law enforcement data on homicides that do exist are also often mistakenly categorized, with American Indian and Alaska Native women identified as white or Hispanic. In Seattle, researchers were given an updated list after the department’s homicide unit found that, until the early 1980s, the letter “N” in its system meant “Negro” and not “Native American.” Of the 25 women and girls the study identified in Gallup, New Mexico, 20 were not listed in law enforcement records. Seventy-five percent of the women and girls in the study lacked any tribal affiliation, meaning that even tribal governments have no way to fully comprehend how the issue is affecting their own citizens. Ninety-eight cases could not be categorized as either “missing” or “murdered” owing to poor record-keeping by local law enforcement.

This lack of information and awareness, both on the part of law enforcement and reporters, can encourage the use of stereotypes, which tend to shroud the seriousness of the problem, said Sarah Deer, a professor and author on Native American law and a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

“A big reason Native women and girls go missing is because people make assumptions that these people chose to live a high-risk lifestyle,” said Deer. “And so law enforcement and sometimes local community leaders are saying, ‘This isn’t someone that we’re going to be looking for.’ ”

An analysis of record-keeping and police practices is part of Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Girls, established in 2016. Canada, unlike the U.S., is treating the problem as a national crisis. Through community hearings and testimony before the Canadian government, the inquiry is gathering and recording the stories of Indigenous people, along with statistics and expert testimony, in an effort to understand and address the root causes of the problem. The final evidence-gathering hearings will be held in December, and the inquiry’s commissioners will submit a final report to the Canadian government by May 2019.  

Echohawk hopes the data set released on Nov. 14 will force policymakers to recognize the issue and take action.

“We did this (study) because Native people needed this in their hands to put in the faces of policymakers and say, ‘Now I have the data, you can’t ignore me any longer.’ ”

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Email him at [email protected] submit a letter to the editor.

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