Lawmakers can address the MMIW crisis. Will they?

Canada is taking major steps to stop the murder of Indigenous women and girls. The U.S. needs to do the same.


Just over a week ago, the Canadian government released its National Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous people. The report, titled Reclaiming Power and Place, garnered some attention here in the United States, albeit mostly in Native communities, primarily due to its declaration that high rates of violence against Indigenous peoples are the result of genocide — violence stemming from “state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies.”

According to the report, Indigenous women and girls in Canada are 12 times more likely to experience violence than non-Indigenous women. Between 1997 and 2000, homicide rates for Indigenous women were nearly seven times higher than for non-Indigenous women. In the United States, murder is the third-leading cause of death among Native women, and on some reservations, Native women are murdered at 10 times the national average. Tribal advocates hope the Canadian inquiry will elevate the discussion here.

In fact, Congress could begin to address the MMIW crisis in the U.S. by acting on currently proposed legislation. For instance, the Senate could re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act by passing a bill that incorporates tribal provisions — provisions that would restore jurisdiction stolen by the Supreme Court in its 1978 decision Oliphant v. Suquamish. In that decision, the court declared that tribal nations could not prosecute non-Indians who perpetrate crimes against Native women and children on tribal lands, even though, according to the Department of Justice, a majority of violent crimes committed against Natives are committed by non-Indians.

House Representative Norma Torres, D-California, reintroduces Savanna's Act, which would start a national database of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“The border line between Canada and the United States is relatively recent in origin — the stories of our relatives in the United States are very similar to the stories of First Nations women in Canada,” says Sarah Deer, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen and University of Kansas professor.

According to Reclaiming Power and Place, Canada is largely responsible for the high levels of violence against its Indigenous citizens. The report goes so far as to identify individual state actions, laws and policies that have directly contributed: “This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures, evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools, and breaches of human and Inuit, Métis and First Nations rights.”

The colonial structures identified in Canada’s National Inquiry have parallels here in the States, from the Supreme Court’s decision in Oliphant to the boarding schools created by the U.S. War Department. The MMIW crisis is well-documented here thanks to advocates like the Urban Indian Health Institute, which recently conducted research across 71 urban areas and cities. It came to a disturbing conclusion: A majority of urban area law enforcement agencies simply do not keep data or records to indicate if and when a Native woman is murdered or missing on tribal lands.

“Canada’s MMIW report confirms many of the issues that we outlined in our report, including how Native women are invisible due to systematic and ongoing racism,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute. “Since the release of our report, we have been calling it a genocide, but it has rarely been acknowledged as that. … It is about time that this epidemic is being described as a genocide, but with that, we will need concrete action.” 

Action could — and should — come from Congress, where an unprecedented number of bills have been recently introduced to address the crisis, from the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act to Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act. Congress seems poised to do something, but advocates worry that this “something” may not address the actual roots of the crisis, particularly when it comes to the theft of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians.

Recently, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center identified five solutions lawmakers could implement immediately to address MMIW: restoring tribal jurisdiction to handle cases at the local, tribal level; allocating resources for victim services; improving access to federal criminal databases; establishing consultation protocols with tribes to respond to MMIW cases; and improving data collection. “If tribes have the resources and authority to respond to these crimes before they escalate in seriousness and lethality, at least some, if not many, potential MMIW cases would have a meaningful intervention prior to fatal escalation,” the center testified before the House Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States in March.

The uptick in legislative activity is due in no small part to the visibility that Native women have gained with the introduction of the first two Indigenous women members of Congress: Deb Haaland, D-N.M., and Sharice Davids, D-Kan. “The Canadian apology and declaration is a significant step to make this crisis visible and points to a severe failure on the government’s part to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Native people. Now, we’ll have more momentum to address missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic on a larger scale,” said Congresswoman Haaland. “The epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women has been a silent crisis for far too long. Now that Indigenous communities are finding their voice through advocacy, we’re raising this issue so that our mothers, daughters, and sisters stop disappearing without a trace.” 

Without a doubt, Canada’s National Inquiry brings us one step closer to replacing silence with actual solutions. The first test will be whether the Senate re-authorizes a VAWA with tribal provisions that restore tribal jurisdiction. But until we restore the right of tribal nations to protect their citizens, MMIW will remain a crisis.

Mary Kathryn Nagle is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a partner at Pipestem Law, P.C., a law firm dedicated to the preservation and restoration of tribal sovereignty and protection of Native people. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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