The effects of human rights violations ripple through history. Even today, through the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (“MMIP”) Crisis, we experience the negative vibrations of the original displacement, disempowerment, and disenfranchisement of the Lenape People. To combat this crisis, we will need to go beyond knowing how our laws, perceptions, and resources are used to perpetuate the MMIP epidemic today. We must acknowledge and reconcile the current harms of historical Indigenous trauma if we hope to end this crisis.
This page is meant to be a starting point to understand the intricacies of the MMIP Crisis. First, we will illuminate the past human rights violations, including how they fit in the international human rights framework and how they shaped the history of the Lenape. Next, we will examine the current state of the MMIP Crisis, and the current factors that permits our friends, families, and neighbors to disappear. Lastly, we provide resources for those interested in doing more and for those who are affected by the MMIP Crisis. By shedding light on this issue, and by embodying that light in our communities, we can work toward ensuring that no Indigenous person ever again slips into the shadows.
Part I: Genocide
This section focuses on Lenape history as it relates to contact with settler-colonists, the American Empire, and the ongoing process of genocide in pursuit of that Empire. Lenape history includes much more than that, however, and encompasses the beauty, the wisdom, and the practices of the Lenape, as well as resilience in the face of erasure. Lenape history stretches back millennia and is too expansive to distill here. More resources on the Lenape can be found in the Brooklyn Public Library’s Lenape Exhibit Collection.
To understand how US Federal Indian Policy affected the Lenape and other Indigenous peoples, and the resulting circumstances that have led to the MMIP Crisis, we examine the eras of federal policy and the human rights violations that occurred in each period to highlight how those past events have paved the way for the current crisis. To help us more easily understand the human rights violations, we will look at the events through the lens of Genocide, as it is currently defined by United Nations (UN) treaty law. Even through this limited scope, we will be able to see how violations can reverberate longinto the future, affecting generations of victims, and why we need to be both responsive and proactive when we see risk factors and warningsigns of genocide.
The Genocide Convention
The UN adopted the Genocide Convention in 1948 in response to the the Holocaust and other atrocities committed during World War II. The Convention defines genocide as:
[A]ny of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The genocide definition does not require mass killing, although that is what is commonly associated with genocide. Genocide can happen slowly over time and without killing a single person. It only takes committing one of the five enumerated acts with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a protected group, which can be much subtler than mass killing.
As we move through the eras of Federal Indian Policy and the History of the Lenape, we will highlight relevant aspects of the genocide convention to demonstrate the violence experienced by the Lenape and other Indigenous peoples.
Contact and Pre-American Revolution
[The] intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such
Prior to settlers arriving on Turtle Island or the area now known as North America and continuing to today, the Lenape inhabit the area known as Lenapehoking, which spans from Western Connecticut to Eastern Pennsylvania, and the Hudson Valley to Delaware, with Manhattan at its center. Other tribes revere the Lenape as peacekeepers, negotiators, and diplomats. Algonquin tribes regard the Lenape as “the grandfathers” and original tribe of the Algonquin speakers. The Lenape are a matriarchal society, and as such female elders play a critical role in tribal politics and decision making. Traditionally, when a couple was married, the couple lived as part of the bride’s mother’s clan and their male children had stronger relations to men in their mother’s clan than they did their father.
This matrilineal practice also was prevalent in other Indigenous societies prior to contact. When colonists invaded Turtle Island, they brought with them the Western ideas of patriarchy and property ownership. While patriarchal societies existed on Turtle Island, they lacked the subjugation of women that is a tenant of European patriarchy. Despite many ideological differences, the Lenape welcomed the colonists and sought a peaceful co-existence with the settlers.
However, ideological differences quickly lead to disagreements and misunderstandings. Take the myth of Wall Street, for example, as told by Curtis Zunigha. The Dutch colonists had established a foothold in lower Mannahatta (which is now called the Island of Manhattan) as a trading center. The Lenape had agreed with the Dutch to allow the Dutch to use and trade on the land. The Dutch misconstrued the cohabitation agreement, thinking instead that they had purchased the land for exclusive use—a concept that was completely foreign to the Lenape of the time. As the Lenape returned to lower Mannahatta to utilize the land, the Dutch would drive them off with force, eventually erecting walls around the fort they had built to prevent the Lenape from using the area at all. As trade in the area increased, a street was eventually formed in front of the fort’s prominent north wall. This street was named Wall Street and became a slave trading marketplace and securities trading site.
While this street continues to be synonymous with economics and commerce, its origin is one of misunderstanding, exclusion, and division. This is an early example of the intent of the colonist invaders: they did not come to co-exist with the people of Turtle Island. Many came to remove, replace, and subjugate the Indigenous people. In other words, they had begun the process of dehumanization that precedes the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. They had begun the process of genocide.
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
During and after the American Revolution, it became clear that the newly formed United States of America was looking to expand. By this time, the Lenape had already been removed from their land, and placed outside the Euro-American claimed area in what was then the Ohio Territory. The Lenape had clashed with other Indigenous groups as they tried to reestablish their nation, and the Lenape land was between the American Colonial Lands and those still held by King George III. In 1778, the Lenape signed the Treaty of Fort Pitt in an attempt to preserve their new lands, to protect their people from American hostilities, and to establish the sovereignty of the Lenape people. The treaty required the Lenape to provide support and safe passage to the American forces that were sent to clear out English forts on the far side of Lenape territory. In exchange, the Lenape were guaranteed “a perpetual peace and friendship,” “that neither [the US nor Lenape would] proceed to the infliction of punishments on the citizens of the other…till a fair and impartial trial can be had by judges or juries of both parties,” and “to form a state whereof the Delaware nation shall be the head, and have a representation in Congress.”
This treaty established precedent that Indigenous nations were sovereign and deserving of respect as nations. The United States of America, however, soon reversed this precedent. By 1782, violence against the Lenape by both the English and United States had become unbearable. In 1782, Pennsylvania militia attacked a group of Lenape who had returned to harvest crops that were planted the year before. The capturers of the Lenape voted to execute them for crimes they had not committed without trial and killed all but two people who were sent to be messengers to the other Indigenous people in the area. In total, 82 Lenape were killed—28 men, 29 women, and 39 children—in the Gnadenhutten Massacre. The Lenape people split, some moving to modern-day Ontario, some to Wisconsin, and a large number, including the Unami speaking Lenape, moved west to Indiana, then Missouri, then Kansas, and finally to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma.
The United States continued to engage in hollow treaty-making with other Indigenous groups, promising sovereignty, protection and representation with no intent to fulfil these obligations. America’s Manifest Destiny, the belief that its expansion was “divinely ordained, justifiable, and inevitable,” was justification for the United States to ignore its promises, to remove Indigenous peoples by force or by threat of force from their lands, and to claim that territory for their own empire. By 1893, the United States had seized roughly 1.5 billion acres of land from Indigenous peoples.
In order to facilitate this expansion, the United States passed the Indian Appropriations Act of 1951 which allocated money for a reservation system to “protect” Indigenous people from settlers moving west. Western tribes were forced from their land on to reservation land. The land held for reservations was not of high quality, and it was rarely possible for the people forced onto the reservation to maintain their traditions or culture. Hunting became nearly impossible while people struggled to adapt to farming; feuding tribes were put together to share small, enclosed reservation areas; disease quickly passed through reservations due to the number of people in close quarters; and it was nearly impossible to uphold traditions or Indigenous cultures under these conditions.
Due to the United States’ expansion by armed, military force and the conditions of reservation lands, by the end of the 1800s between 5 and 20 million Indigenous persons had been killed. Indigenous life was consolidated in ways that were sure to destroy their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. This plan was calculated, it was intentional, and it was genocidal.
Allotment and Assimilation (1871-1928)
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
In the Appropriation Act of March 3, 1871, the United States made expressly clear that “no Indian nation or tribe… shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation.” The Act did preserve all treaty obligations the United States had entered into with the Indigenous nations, which was a nominal provision at best. Many people in the United States saw a need to end the “savagery” of tribal entities, to “civilize” the Indigenous populations, and assimilate all Indigenous people for their own benefit. This ushered in the period of allotment and forced assimilation.
The General Allotment Act of 1887, known as the Dawes Act, dissolved reservation lands and allotted land to the individuals living on reservations. In 1889, President Cleveland opened any remaining unallotted land for purchase by homesteaders. Prior to allotment, 138 million acres were reserved for Indigenous nations. When allotment was abandoned roughly 50 years later, only 48 million acres were still controlled by Indigenous people. Many Indigenous people refused to be subjugated in this way. It was the official United States Military policy to bring Native people under US control, a policy that led to conflicts such as the Battle of Little Big Horn, Geronimo’s campaign, and the Wounded Knee Massacre. The fight for Indigenous freedom, autonomy, and cultural dignity was a fight to the death, and the United States military was prepared to do what was necessary to secure the western frontier for white settlement. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price made the official policy clear in the Commissioner’s 1881 Report that “one of two things must eventually take place, to wit either civilization or extermination of the Indian. Savage and civilized life cannot live and prosper on the same ground.”
In addition to undermining Indigenous sovereignty, cultural heritage, and military power, the United States endeavored to use education as a means to assimilate Indigenous children. By the 1880s, the United States had 60 on-reservation schools, primarily run by religious institutions, which taught Indigenous children to read, write, and speak English, how to practice Christianity, and instilled the values of order, discipline and self-sufficiency—which were glorified values in 19th century American society but were antithetical to the idea of collective care that was central to Indigenous life.
While the on-reservation boarding schools were effective, many believed that those schools were not removed enough from Indigenous influences. In 1879, Col. Richard Henry Pratt established the first off-reservation school, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Col. Pratt—who had only attained the rank of Captain at the founding of the Carlisle School—was a Union Army soldier during the Civil War. After the war, Pratt was promoted to Lieutenant and was assigned to keep order on Federal Indian Reservations and was eventually transferred to Texas to lead troops during the Red River War. During that time, he led the Tonkawa Indian Scouts as well as a calvary regimen. He experimented with educating and assimilating his wards and was surprised at how quickly they adapted to white culture. He regarded Indigenous peoples as highly capable of assimilating, which was contrary to the general view that Indigenous people were somehow subhuman. Despite this, Pratt’s motto was “Kill the Indian, Save the man,” a clear intention to destroy, in whole or in part, this ethnic group.
Indigenous children were taken from their parents and communities and forcibly placed at Indian Boarding Schools. The Indian Boarding schools were part academic, part vocational, and the students learned skills that were regarded as valuable to white society—sewing, cooking, cleaning, and laundry for girls; blacksmithing, shoemaking, and farming for boys. The academic education included English classes, history taught with a clear white bias, and some math and sciences. While studying, students were forced to cut their hair and wear Anglo-American clothing. They were prohibited from practicing their traditional religions and instead forced to practice Christianity. They were forbidden from speaking their languages and were given white names that would help them assimilate and inherit property once they had been released from the school. They had to abandon their traditional foods and were forced to use forks, knives and other settler table manners. They were also marched from class to class to instill order and discipline. Punishment at these schools was harsh and included violence. Disobedience was met with corporal punishment, withholding food, and solitary confinement. Many students who attended recounted horrific corporal punishment inflicted in the name of Christianity to save the students from “savagery.” An unknown but sizable number of Indigenous children died from punishment, starvation, and disease while attending the schools. This practice has had lasting, intergenerational effects on the identities of Indigenous communities who had their children taken and on individuals who were no longer “Indigenous enough” to be part of their communities but not “white enough” to succeed in mainstream society, not to mention the physical and psychological health effects of the violence for students who experienced it.
Reorganization, Termination and Relocation
(B) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(C) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
In the 1920s, attitudes toward assimilation changed drastically. Many people rejected the turn of the century assimilationist views and advocated tolerance and respect for Indigenous cultures. The Meriam Report by the Brookings Institute highlighted the disparate and deplorable Indigenous living conditions and helped to redefine Federal Indian policy to develop the good of Indian cultures not just to destroy all that is Indian. Prominent leaders, such as Herbert Hoover and BIA Commissioner Charles Rhoads, implemented the Meriam Reports recommendation and endeavored to improve the Bureau of Indian Affairs by appointing Indigenous officials, shifting educational focus away from boarding schools to on-reservation day schools, and fighting proposals to dispose of Indian land. Rhoads’ successor, John Collier, ended the allotment process and pressed State and Local governments to improve the lives of Indigenous people. This culminated in the Indian Reorganization Act, which allowed the Secretary of the Interior to acquire and return tribal lands, recognized tribal governments and advocated for the establishment of tribal constitutions, and provided monetary pathways for Tribal entities. Although the efficacy of the Tribal Government provisions of the Act are debatable, there was a clear economic improvement which also improved the quality of life for Indigenous people.
This time of relative prosperity quickly ended as World War II put a strain on the American Economy. Many people called for ending the Indian Reorganization programs, and relations between Collier and Congress were so strained that Collier resigned. His successor, Dillon S. Myer who operated the West Coast Japanese internment camps during the war, was not interested in preserving Indigenous culture. Health, education, land ownership, taxation and welfare policy were all walked back to Allotment and Assimilation era policies.
In the 1950s, the BIA made the “Voluntary Relocation Program” its primary focus. The program provided Indigenous war veterans and any other volunteers with permanent off-reservation jobs to assimilate the volunteers in urban centers. By taking the jobs, the Indigenous people were cut off from federal reservation services and received little more than a one-way ticket and per diem until their first paycheck. Many Indigenous people were isolated from their culture and living in poverty.
In addition, Congress passed legislation to terminate the Federal recognition and fiduciary duty to a large number of tribes. Congress specifically passed legislation terminating its responsibilities to the Menominee of Wisconsin, the Klamath of Oregon, 61 tribes in Western Oregon, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, the Ute Indians of Utah, the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utha, the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma, The Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, the Wyandotte of Oklahoma, the Koi Nation of Lower Rancheria in California, the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, the Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, and the Tiwa Indians of Texas. Each of these acts, to various degrees, gave states control over the land and terminated the fiduciary relationship between the federal government and tribal members. Congress also passed Public Law 280, which mandated that the state governments in California, Nebraska, Minnesota, Oregon, and Wisconsin take over civil and criminal jurisdiction within their territory, while allowing other states to opt in. This severed the responsibility of the Federal government’s role in Indigenous criminal justice and severely impeded the ability of tribes to develop Tribal criminal justice systems. Additionally, Public Law 280 did not allow Tribal governments in voluntary states to opt out and did require their consent before their Federal status was terminated.
These termination orders also meant the termination of reservation land, compelling some people to take part in the voluntary relocation program and severely disadvantageing those who relied on reservation services. The process of termination completely undermined the sovereignty of Indigenous governments and essentially forced Tribal governments to assimilate with State governments. The loss of funding, stability, and identity cause mental and physical harm to already disadvantaged Indigenous communities, especially after the rapid improvement in livelihood during the Reorganization period.
Much of the termination and relocation period was used to undermine indigeneity, many activist movements such as the Pan-Indian Movement were able to thrive because Indigenous people from across the country were coming together in Urban Centers. The National Congress of the American Indian (NCAI)—the oldest and largest caucus of Indigenous tribes—gained prominence as a political entity advocating for Indigenous rights, and the American Indian Movement, a prominent activist group which works to improve systematic poverty, discrimination, and police brutality of Indigenous persons, were born from the United States’ termination policy. These organizations are still pivotal to the Indigenous rights movements happening today.
Starting in the late 1950s many members of Congress began speaking out against the Termination policy and treatment of Indigenous people. This, in conjunction with the activism of the NCAI and American Indian Movement during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, began to shift American perception and policy regarding Indigenous self-determination and self-governance. In the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Constitution’s Bill of Rights was directly applied to Indigenous-Americans for the first time and recognized that the policy of assimilation was not only a failure, but also wrong. In 1970, Nixon sent a Special Message to Congress officially making self-determination the Federal Indian Policy. He acknowledged in his introduction that the historical treatment of Indigenous persons was unjust and that:
It is long past time that the Indian policies of the Federal government began to recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people. Both as a matter of justice and as a matter of enlightened social policy, we must begin to act on the basis of what the Indians themselves have long been telling us. The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.
Nixon proposed legislation that would officially repudiate the termination policy, and while Congress refused to pass the outright repudiation, it did pass the Menominee Restoration Act and other similar acts that restored full recognition to the previously terminated tribes.
In line with that policy, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 which allowed the Government to contract directly with recognized tribes, provide grants, and allowed the Tribes to determine how to use the funds. Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 which recognized Tribal courts and made them the “primary and ultimate” court for Indigenous child welfare cases, repudiating the Indian boarding school policy. It passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 to recognize the legitimacy of Indigenous religious practices, and the Native American House Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 recognized the ability of Tribal governments to allocate housing grant funding for the welfare of their people.
These Congressional Acts have been essential in reestablishing the sovereignty and dignity of Indigenous peoples in the United States, but these Acts can only do so much. The historical trauma of centuries of broken treaties, broken promises, brutal policing, and dehumanization have left scars on the Pan-Indigenous community collectively and individually. Society has also been shaped by the degrading Federal Indian Policies, with many people believing that Indigenous people only lived in the past or are somehow less human than the white, non-Indigenous population. These harms and misconceptions stemming from the two-century long Genocide of Indigenous peoples are still being felt in myriad ways: peoples like the Lenape are now reclaiming their history and identity; urban Indigenous communities are fighting to have access to essential services and establish their cultural identities in major cities; and thousands of women are going missing in a crisis that threatens the very existence of the Indigenous people of the United States.
The Lenape people are very much alive today. Despite the ongoing genocide, the Lenape have remained a resilient and distinct people who continue to proudly practice our culture. The Missing and Murdered Indigienous Persons crisis is pressing for us as caretakers of Lenapehoking. In order to prevent our kin and neighbors from going missing, we must address the Federal government’s legal relationship to Indigenous people, improve how Indigenous people are spoken about and regarded by the public, and recognize the inequities still present between and among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. In short, we must confront the ongoing Indigenous Genocide to prevent it from claiming any more Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit people.
Part II: The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit Crisis
What is the crisis?
Despite the growing awareness of the issue, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit (MMIWG2S) Crisis is as old as colonialism in the United States. Women, girls and two-spirit people—people who might identify as LGBT+ or who don’t identify with a single gender—have been targeted throughout the colonial process, partly as a means to control Indigenous populations and partly due to the traditionally sacred roles women and two-spirit persons have played in Indigenous cultures. This targeting has continued, and due to decades of delayed responses by State and Federal governments to adequately address the issue, indigenous women on reservation land are murdered at a rate that is 10 times the national average.
This is not just an issue on reservation land, however. While there are unique problems created by the “dependent sovereign” relationship between the United States and Tribal governments, Indigenous women experience violence at incredibly high rates across the country. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has reported that 46% of all Native American women have already experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, and 1 in 3 Indigenous women will, at some point in their lives experience violence or rape trauma. There are many factors that contribute to this high rate of violence—from historical dehumanization of native peoples and the forced assimilation of Indigenous people though Manifest Destiny to contemporary legal loopholes and a lack of data. These factors need to addressing if there is to be any hope of stopping the continued harm to Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people.
There is hope, though. Thousands of people across the United States are working together to improve data collection on people at risk of violence, to provide direct services to survivor of domestic and intimate partner violence, to create protocols at the Local, State, Federal and Tribal levels of government, and to shift our cultural awareness away from settler-colonialism and the heteropatriarchy. Their collective work over the last three decades have led the U.S. Federal Government to create working groups for the Department of the Interior (DOI), the DOJ, the President, and Congress to better understand the scope of this issue. These working groups, for the first time in Federal Indian Policy, are centering Indigenous voices to understand the best and most culturally appropriate steps to take to address this problem.
You have already started to help, too. By continuing to research, understand, and raise awareness of this issue, you can do your part to save the lives and livelihoods of our native sisters and two-spirit kin.
What is causing the crisis?
The MMIWG2S Crisis is a complex issue with many intersecting factors. These factors allow Indigenous women to “disappear not once, but three times—in life, in the media, and in the data.” To understand how these factors amplify each other, we should first understand how each factor contributes to the crisis. This is not an exhaustive list of factors, but it does highlight the most pressing issues driving the crisis. Some of these issues are unique to Indian County—the land that is controlled by Tribal governments—but many of these factors are national issues that pervade society and make it difficult to bring this crisis to an end.
Jurisdiction and Dependent Sovereignty
First and foremost, it is important to know that Tribal governments are ‘domestic, dependent sovereigns’ to the United States. This means that Tribal governments are their own, self-determined governments, but their power—and even their existence—is controlled by Congress. This also means that Congress can decide what jurisdiction Tribal Courts and Tribal Law Enforcement have over certain cases. Jurisdiction is the authority of a court to adjudicate a particular type of case. One of the most pressing issues is that Tribal Courts and Law Enforcement do not currently have the jurisdiction to prosecute non-Tribal/non-Indian persons except under very limited circumstances. In cases where non-Indians are committing serious crimes in Indian Country, Tribal Governments must rely on State or Federal law enforcement to prosecute the individuals. Due to the remote location of much of Indian Country, however, State and Federal law enforcement responses can be slow and ineffective in bringing justice for Tribal victims. Because of this system, non-Indian persons are free to come onto reservation, commit serious crimes such as rape or murder, and leave the reservation with impunity, knowing it is unlikely that law enforcement will adequately prosecute them.
This is especially true in areas with extractive industries, such as oil drilling and mineral mining. These industries are often set up in or near Indian Country and bring thousands of transient workers to carry out the drilling and extraction. These mostly male workers are set up in ‘Man Camps’, which rapidly increase the non-Indian population of an area and stress local law enforcement capabilities. It is no coincidence, then, that the presence of Man Camps increases violent victimization by as much as 70%, leaving Tribal Governments without the means to properly prosecute non-Indian offenders in their territories.
Congress has granted Tribal Courts and Law Enforcement some jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian offenders, but the most serious crimes are still off limits. Until Tribal courts have the authority to prosecute all crimes that occur in their territory, the worst offenders will continue to exploit the jurisdictional loopholes and violence against women in Indian Country will continue.
Another major issue in addressing the MMIWG2S crisis is the lack of data around missing Indigenous persons, especially in urban areas. According to the 2010 Census, 71% of American Indian and Alaska Natives live outside of Indian Country. In most urban areas, data related to missing persons and Indigenous people are sorely lacking. This was confirmed by the 2018 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report compiled by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI).
The UIHI 2018 report surveyed 72 law enforcement agencies in cities across the country and compared the number of reported missing persons to information gathered from community members. The report found that at least 153 people were reported missing by community members who were not reported in any law enforcement records. This is in addition to more than 500 reported cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women.
These number alone are high compared to the number of American Indian and Alaska Natives in the United States, but the process of acquiring data had just as much to tell. Of the 72 agencies, only 40 returned any data. In that data that was acquired, it was clear that lax data collection protocols and racial misclassifications were rampant. The process required extensive resources to generate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for each agency, follow up with non-responsive agencies, and pay the necessary filing fees only to receive partial or incorrect data due to improper collection practices.
While there has been Federal legislation to begin to address the lack of MMIWG2S data, we will never know the full extent of the crisis or where to focus activism until there is an efficient, accurate, and public record of our missing sisters and two-spirit kin.
A contributing factor to the lack of awareness of the MMIWG2S issue is the lack of adequate media coverage of this crisis. National news sources rarely cover MMIWG2S cases, and when they do, it is often riddled with racially coded language. Coverage of non-Indigenous missing persons are also more extensive and garner national responses, while coverage of Indigenous missing persons rarely receive the same outcry.
The UIHI 2018 report analyzed the content of MMIWG media coverage. The report found that the majority of coverage focused on reservation-based violence and neglected the urban victims of MMIWG2S crimes. Only 129 of the 506 cases were covered in the media and most were not covered more than once. Additionally, the coverage was almost exclusively local, state or regional, and only 21 cases—5% of 506 total cases—ever had national recognition.
The report also found that when MMIWG2S cases were reported, violent or coded language was use. For example, one third of the reports included references to drugs and alcohol, references to the victim’s criminal history, or misgendered trans victims. Articles also referenced sex work, did not name the victim, used victim-blaming language, or showed graphic depictions of the victim’s death. These portrayals can lead to dangerous stereotyping and public misconceptions of the value of Indigenous life.
Public awareness of this issue is essential to solving and, more importantly, preventing MMIWG2S cases. Without adequate, compassionate, and truthful media coverage, the general public with remain unaware or misinformed about the state of the MMIWG2S crisis.
Social Constructs and Enforced Disappearance
Society plays a large role in the continual disappearance of Indigenous people, especially women and two-spirit people. There are many societal risk factors that endemic for all women, including increased risk of intimate partner violence, human trafficking, reduced wages, and housing instability. Two-spirt and LGBTQ+ persons have to contend with increased rates of mental health issues, housing insecurity, bullying, family displacement, and drug use. All of these intersectional societal risks amplify the dangers that Indigenous people already face and increase the likelihood of a person to go missing or be murdered.
Unique to Indigenous people, though, is the media portrayal of native people in society. Because Indigenous people make up only 1.7% in 2010, it is more likely that a person will encounter Indigenous people in the media than they would in person. This makes media portrayal incredibly potent as most non-Indigenous people will not have their prototypical perception of Indigenous people challenged by ‘real life’ experiences with native persons. Depictions of native people have historically been negative or anachronistic; Indigenous people are often portrayed alongside cowboys, or with addictions to drugs and alcohol. Even positive portrayals tend to homogenize the identify of Indigenous people, further diluting the diverse customs and cultural practices of American Indian Tribes. This combination of devaluing and fictionalizing Indigenous people leads society to do the same, further limiting the awareness given to indigenous issues like the MMIWG2S crisis.
But there is an additional effect of negative or hyper-fictionalized portrayals that can lead to increased risk of MMIP violence. Continual exposure to negative stereotypes can lead Indigenous people to internalize those stereotypes, especially in the absence of other, positive portrayals. Negative self-stereotyping can lead to depression, lower-self-esteem and other mental health issues that intensify the risk factors that lead to MMIP violence. People exposed to homogenized portrayals of their culture also experience deindividualization, feeling like they don’t belong or aren’t being legitimately recognized, which has harmful mental health effects.
These societal constructs of Indigenous people have tangible effects. If the public believes that Indigenous people only exist in the past or that they are second-class citizens, then they are less likely actively involve themselves in searching for missing Indigenous people. This includes government and law enforcement officials who are exposed to those same negative representations. When the government willingly fails to investigate missing person cases, it is known as enforced disappearance because the way the government is enforcing—or is failing to enforce—the law is preventing missing people from being found. Enforced disappearance boldens people to commit MMIP violence because they see it is the government’s policy not to investigate this particular type of crime.
What’s being done nationally?
The MMIWG2S issue has been ongoing for centuries, but in the last three decades, there has been a major shift in awareness. Many grassroots efforts have developed recently to bring awareness to the issue. They utilize social media to alert the community of new missing persons, as well as to track the progress of MMIP investigation and hold public officials accountable.
In addition to grassroots organizing, Tribal Governments have created MMIW working groups. These groups work separately and in conjunction with other tribal working groups and nonprofits to address the MMIW issue in their territory. This includes awareness campaigns, but it also includes creating educational campaigns for Tribal and State law enforcement and lobbying State governments to enact legal improvements and law enforcement mandates.
There are also major national non-profits working in this space. Sovereign Bodies Institute and the Urban Indian Health Institute have been leaders in research, data collection, and reporting on the MMIWG2S issue. The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women has been vocal in advocating for social change, providing educational support to Indigenous communities to create violence free societies. The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center focuses on supporting grassroots activism, policy development and providing culturally grounded resources to victim-survivors of MMIW violence. These groups have raised the national awareness of this issue in astounding ways.
After the 2018 UIHI report was released, it became clear to Federal lawmakers and executive leadership that something needed to be done to improve data collection and center Indigenous voices. Grassroots, Tribal, and National organizations provided perspective, pressure, and research to encourage law makers to take action. In 2019, two major pieces of legislation, The Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act, were introduced and passed by Congress. The Not Invisible Act created a Congressional working group of policy makers and Indigenous community leaders to report back on the state of the issue. Savanna’s Act provides increased access to federal missing person data bases and resources. It also created a task force to analyze and improve national data collection protocols. The DOJ also created a Task Force and hired 11 MMIP Coordinators to assist with active missing persons cases while the DOI created the Missing and Murdered Unit which will aid in investigating cases that have gone cold. Lastly, a presidential task force, Operation Lady Justice, was created to hold listening sessions with tribal and community leaders to understand the issue, to develop law enforcement protocol, and to create national educational campaigns regarding the MMIW crisis.
While the Federal Government’s response has the potential to greatly improve the state of the crisis, much of their efforts have been focused on the issues in Indian Country. This means that urban areas, where most Indigenous people live, are not receiving adequate attention or resources to manage the crisis there.
What is being done in NYC?
New York City has the largest numerical population of Indigenous people than any other city, and a larger population of Indigenous people than 40 states. Despite this, little research has been done on the scope of the crisis in NYC. The Lenape Center has created an MMIWG Working Group called Nichusak (nee-CHOOS-sucK; meaning “My Women Friends”) of multi-disciplinary leaders to begin to address the crisis in NYC and the larger Lenapehoking. In addition to creating cultural awareness and educational resources, Nichusak is working to understand the scope of the crisis in NYC, in tandem with other groups such as Sovereign Bodies Institute and the Urban Indigenous collective who have begun collecting data on this issue.
Ultimately, through awareness, cultural competency, and data gathering, Nichusak and other grassroots Indigenous groups hope to improve data collection, increase access to Indigenous centered health and social services, and stop the physical and cultural erasure of Indigenous people in NYC. You are playing a part, too. You’ve already begun to raise awareness of this issue. Please continue to share what you have learned with your friends, family, and community. In the next section, there are additional educational resources and opportunities to reach out to your state and federal officials. There are also opportunities to donate in order to financially support the work of our organization. We all must do our part to bring this crisis to an end. The MMIWG2S issue has been ongoing for centuries, and it will take time to bring this issue to a close. But each of us, through kinship and community, can take small but effective steps to improve the state of the crisis. We owe it to each other to care for one another.