The Invisible Crisis

Is the United States leading in efforts to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis?

A small snapshot of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls of the United States | Photos sourced from NamUs & Justice for Native Women

All Kimberly Loring wants is to find her sister.

Ashley Loring-Heavyrunner disappeared in 2018 off the Blackfeet reservation located in northern Montana. Since then, her family has tirelessly searched through the mountain range and thick vegetation that borders the tribal land — calling out Ashley’s name.

“If me and my family didn’t search for Ashley, I don’t think anybody would be looking for her.” Loring told ABC news in 2019.

Loring-Heavyrunner’s family searching through her reservation. (photo source: AP)

Loring-Heavyrunner’s story is one that’s all too familiar for many Indigenous peoples, as women and girls in their communities are disappearing and/or being killed at alarming rates.

According to the National Congress of American Indians , 84% of Indigenous women have experienced some type of violence in their lifetime.

Jessica Smith, who is a First Nations researcher at the University of Wisconsin, explained to me over email that, “Native women have been going missing and getting murdered since colonial contact. Christopher Columbus was a trafficker and a murderer. There is still a very high prevalence of systemic racism that contributes to the epidemic.”

Yet, these cases do not always appear in official databases, as many cases go unreported, undocumented and in turn, are missing from official databases.

Indigenous women and girls are missing from their homes, families, and in our data.

A consistent theme amongst research into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) crisis is the disturbing lack of statistics on just how many cases there are.

“The crux of the issue is that there’s not data out there.” Michaela Madrid, an operations manager at Sovereign Bodies Institute (SBI), a nonprofit that researches and documents MMIWG cases, informed me. She explained that data is spread amongst multiple databases, so the informaiton does exist, “it’s just really hard to get to.”

There is no definite number regarding the crisis. The United States Department of Justice logged 5,712 missing and/or murdered cases into their database in 2016, now the number is unknown.

This map presents data collected from Sovereign Bodies Institute (SBI), Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), the U.S department of Justice database NamUs, the United States Census Bureau, Shatter the Silence North Carolina and tribal police estimates.

As of July 2020, Annita Lucchesi, the Executive Director of SBI, has documented over 3,000 cases — most of which are only from the past six years. Lucchesi told HuffPost, if dated as far back as the 1900’s; she believes research is missing about 25,000 cases.

Indigenous rights activists point fingers to the lack of investigative policing and extreme gaps in government oversight as the main contributors to insufficient research. As well, the systemic discrimination that has bulldozed over First Nations peoples since colonization.

“Many cities and agencies don’t even have databases that are searchable by race or that accurately represent native people. If you look just recently with the election results and CNN’s exit poll that categorized Native people as ‘something else’, that is common in what we see with data regarding violence against us.” said Smith.

The lack of numbers in data systems weaken the severity of the epidemic. Which in effect, lessens pressure on law enforcement to act and non-Indigenous communities to care.

This leaves many women and girls a disregarded case file.

Behind every case file — is a name and story.

One is Leona Kinsey.

personal photo of Kinsey. (photo source: The Charley Project)

“I imagined my mom being murdered in every possible way and I was told I watch too much TV.”

This is the statement Carolyn DeFord told me she received after pushing for further investigation involving her mother, Leona Kinsey’s disappearance over two decades ago.

Kinsey went missing in 1999 from her home in La Grande, Oregon. She was a member of the Puyallup Tribe and DeFord described her mother as independent, creative, and someone with “a big heart and a lot of compassion”.

At first, police theorized that Kinsey left on her own freewill. Deford being told that her mother was an adult, and “had the right to privacy”. However, Deford knew something was wrong when she found out her mother had left behind her purse, phone, full pack of cigarettes, glasses and beloved dogs.

“Families aren’t kept in the loop about what is done and what isn’t done.” To this day Deford is unaware if Kinsey’s phone and pager records were searched or whether her mother’s neighbors/coworkers were questioned. DeFord states that many families feel in the dark with most of investigations involving loved ones.

Leona Kinsey’s case is cold.

Research conducted by Amber Alert, a nonprofit focused on child abductions in the U.S, states that 1 in 130 Indigenous children are likely to go missing each year.

One is Anthonette Cayedito.

Photo from NamUs database.

Cayedito was 9-years old when she disappeared from her home in Gallup, New Mexico in 1986. In the middle of the night, someone knocked on her home’s door and she answered it. She was never seen again.

Her family described her as a mature, kind, and well-rounded girl. Cayedito’s younger sister, Wendy Montoya, told Albuquerque Journal in 2017 that her sister’s disappearance broke her “whole family up”.

Cayedito’s mother Penny passed away in 1999; without any answers to what may have happened to her daughter.

Anthonette Cayedito’s case is cold.

According to data analyzed by the Sovereign Bodies Institute, nearly 60% of MMIW cases are homicides.

One is Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind.

Photo from Lafontaine-Greywind’s personal Facebook page.

In 2017, Lafontaine-Greywind was a 22-year-old woman who lived in Fargo, North Dakota and was just beginning her life with her boyfriend and soon-to-be-born daughter.

She was eight-months pregnant when she was brutally killed by her upstairs neighbor.

LaFontaine-Greywind’s horrifying case will now ensure Indigenous women and girls across America have a chance at justice.

Savanna’s Act and Not Invisible Act

On October 13th, 2020, President Donald Trump signed into law the Savanna’s Act and Not Invisible Act — both critical steps to address the MMIWG crisis.

Both acts strive to ensure cases do not fall between the cracks, as they aim to seek investigation into static cases, strengthen partnership between first nations peoples/law enforcement agencies, collect data and address the lack of accountability by the justice system.

Photo sourced from Donald Trump’s official twitter page.

The acts have been a bipartisan effort since 2017. In response to uproar from Lafontaine-Greywind’s community, Savanna’s act was introduced by former Senator Heidi Heitkamp, and subsequently after she lost her re-election, Senator Lisa Murkowski picked up the torch in 2018.

Protestors hold signs in 2018, demanding justice for Lafontaine-Greywind. (photo source: AP)

The Not Invisible Act was originally introduced by Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto in 2019, who was concerned about the vast number of dismissed cases in her home state of Nevada. “These communities are full of mothers, daughters, sisters and friends whose lives are vibrant and full of potential.” Cortez Masto said on the senate floor.

“I won’t let these women become a statistic.”

Beyond the Border

In Canada, they’re referring to it as a genocide.

Adrian Wyld (photo source: AP)

Similar to the United States, Canada has no definite number. The estimation exceeds 4,000, according to Native Women Association of Canada {NWAC}.

In 2014, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police report found that while Indigenous women represented only 4.3% of the total female population, they account for 16% of all female homicide victims. “No one has been keeping accurate data since that time {RCMP report}.” Gloria Galloway, a spokesperson for NWAC disclosed to me.

Attempting to address the growing numbers, the liberal government under Prime Minister Trudeau’s guiding hand, launched a National Inquiry into MMIWG. The 1,200-page report, ‘Reclaiming Power and Place’, was a spring-board towards a 3-year long investigation. The final report produced 230 recommendations to address the genocide that is “centuries in the making”.

However, the United States is seemingly leading its neighbor in government-wide efforts to address the crisis as of late.

In 2019, the Trump administration created operation lady justice, a strategy to combat the MMIWG crisis. The initiative has established task forces and/or inquiries into 16 states. As well, the presidential task force hosted listening sessions, and tribal consultations throughout various reservations across the nation.

Illustrating their dedication to listen and learn from those impacted most.

According to an official statement by the White House, operation lady justice is preparing to integrate Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act into the task-force’s pre-existing structure.

Defrosting Cold Cases

The acts are a promise of hope, however there is still skepticism what they can accomplish for cold cases.

“It can’t be a one size fits all response.” Deford said.

Carolyn Deford holding a photo of her missing mother. (photo source: NPR)

Previous attempts at justice for Indigenous women, like the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, have been heavily criticized for their uniformed approach. Mainly for grouping all women together, instead of on a case-to-case basis.

However, section 5: {Guidelines for Responding to Cases of Missing or Murdered Indians} of the Savanna’s Act, requires the Department of Justice to work on protocols that actively investigate cases.

As well, the Not Invisible Act illustrates the government’s commitment to pushing Indigenous voices to the forefront when investigating cases; by designating “an official within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to coordinate prevention efforts, grants, and programs related to missing Indians and the murder and human trafficking of Indians.”

Hopeful Next Steps

With president-elect Joe Biden’s victory, many are hopeful of the nation’s next steps with new leadership.

In the official Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations, the newly-appointed team will “take a comprehensive approach, and ensure Native people are at the table, listened to, and part of the solution” in the next steps addressing the MMIWG crisis. The plan also intends to “ tackle the data gaps refueling the epidemic,” “expand federal resources,” and “break the cycle of victimization.”

With the inclusion of both acts and future administration diligently working to create an accurate representation of data, pursue investigation, and work alongside communities — the nation moves forward to recognize and advocate for indigenous women and girls.

(photo source: Devin Whetstone)

Yet, it is vital to remember how much work is still to be done.

Smith said, “I do have hope they will help our people get justice. I think it will take time but I do have hope.”

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