Violence against Indigenous women is a crisis, federal report says

By: - November 12, 2021 8:35 am

Indigenous women lead the 2019 Phoenix Women’s March, where they advocated for their missing and murdered Native sisters. (Delia Johnson/ Cronkite News)

Violence against Indigenous women in the United States is a crisis, but the extent of the problem remains unknown, according to a report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

“There’s no one single database that has all this information,” said Gretta Goodwin, director of the GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice team. “So, the full scope of the problem is we don’t know.”

Gathering data needed to figure out just how big the problem is is complicated by a history of police racism and prejudice that has left Indigenous people feeling that there is no reason to seek help from law enforcement agencies, leaving untold numbers of cases unreported — and uninvestigated.

The report, which was published Nov. 1, comes two years after more than a dozen members of Congress, including Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, wrote a letter to the GAO requesting an investigation on missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) in the United States.

With no centralized database among the thousands of federal, state and tribal entities, there is limited data on missing and murdered Indigenous people.

The GAO report identified four major federal databases that included some data on missing and murdered Indigenous people. The missing person data was pulled from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) and the National Crime Information Center. The data for murdered individuals came from the National Violent Death Reporting System and the National Incident-Based Reporting System. 

For instance, NamUS published a report in August stating there are 734 unresolved missing Indigenous people’s cases from 36 states, including three from kansas.

The NCIC publishes a roundup every year that highlights the total number of missing persons and unidentified person cases reported.

In 2020, more than 9,500 cases involving Indigenous people were reported, and nearly 1,500 were still active cases at the end of 2020. 

The lack of overall data is only one of the issues that local MMIW advocate groups and tribes have been talking about for years, and now that the MMIW crisis has more of a national spotlight, federal and state entities are starting to pay attention.

In some tribal communities, Indigenous women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average, according to the Department of Justice.

In 2017, homicide was reported as the fourth-leading cause of death among Indigenous women between the ages of 1 and 19 years and the sixth-leading cause of death for ages 20 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a report from the National Institute of Justice, 84% of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime, compared to 71% of white women.

Findings and recommendations

The GAO’s inquiry into MMIW started in January 2020 and concluded in October 2021. The report examines to what extent the number of MMIW is known in the United States, as well as what steps the Department of Justice and Department of Interior, have taken to address the issue.

“When we started this work, we knew that a number of groups had already been attempting to highlight this issue,” Goodwin said. “This is the first time we’ve done this work.”

Outside of the databases, the GAO was able to identify other data collection efforts, including regional efforts from researchers, tribes, and states. 

The GAO worked with locations in seven states to see how they collected MMIW data: Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Washington. 

Within these locations, the GAO interviewed law enforcement agencies, collected tribal perspectives on the MMIW related issues from 23 tribes, and reviewed reports from local advocacy groups.

“Our seven cases certainly don’t speak to the experience of all 574 federally recognized tribes,” said Anna Maria Ortiz, the director of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team. “They do give us glimpses on some of the factors that we think might play into this crisis.”

Goodwin said they did not name the locations they worked within the report out of respect because the GAO intends on continuing their work in this field. 

“We determined that while the data have limitations for estimating the absolute magnitude of missing or murdered (Indigenous) women, they were sufficiently reliable for the purposes of identifying potential locations with relatively high numbers and missing or murdered (Indigenous) women per capita,” the report says.

The GAO report pointed out several reasons for the lack of data, including how federal databases do not contain national data on all Indigenous women reported missing, but also that officials are prone to underreporting cases, misclassification of race and misclassifications of the manner of death to the federal databases.

The findings in the report were not surprising to Ortiz, but she was struck by how haunting some of the stories were that tribal community members shared with them during their research.

“The legacy of historical racism and prejudice made families feel like they could not even go to law enforcement because law enforcement was going to be dismissive or ignore their concerns,” she said. “So, it was not a surprise per se, but it was devastating and speaks to how important it is that the federal government do what it can to improve its response to this crisis.”

The GAO report also looked into how the Justice and Interior Department has addressed the MMIW issue. The report found that some of the requirements listed in two laws from 2020, the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act, could help address part of the MMIW crisis, but it’s up to both departments to implement them.

National attention on the crisis involving missing and murdered Indigenous people has been increasing over the years. 

In 2019, the Justice Department announced the agency’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative and President Donald Trump launched a task force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives known as Operation Lady Justice.

In April, another national push came from Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland when she launched the Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. This unit will provide leadership and direction for cross-departmental and interagency work involving missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“Whether it’s a missing family member or a homicide investigation, these efforts will be all hands on deck,” Haaland said at the time. “We are fully committed to assisting Tribal communities with these investigations, and the MMU will leverage every resource available to be a force multiplier in preventing these cases from becoming cold case investigations.”

The Interior Department reported that 2,700 cases of murder and non-negligent homicide offenses have been reported to the federal government’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.

Even though the Justice and Interior departments increased their efforts to address the MMIW crisis, the GAO report found that the departments have not implemented certain requirements to increase intergovernmental coordination and data collection as part of the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act. The agencies have even missed some of their statutory deadlines.

As part of the Not Invisible Act, one requirement is that the secretary of the interior, in coordination with the attorney general, is supposed to appoint members to a Joint Commission on Reducing Violence Against Indians. Those appointments were supposed to be made by February 2021, 120 days after the act passed.

None have been appointed. In August, nearly nine months after the deadline, the Justice and Interior departments announced they wanted to start finding members for the commission.

Savanna’s Act directs the Justice Department to review, revise and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing or murdered Indigenous people.

Some of the requirements from Savanna’s Act include having the attorney general, in cooperation with the secretary of interior, consult with tribes on how to improve tribal data relevance and access to databases. 

The Justice Department also needs to provide training to law enforcement agencies on how to record tribal enrollment or victims in federal databases as well as develop and implement a strategy to educate the public on NamUs.

GAO reported that, as of June, the Justice Department is in the planning stage for meeting this data collection and reporting requirements and is considering using data from two federal databases to satisfy it. 

The GAO reported that the Justice Department had until April to conduct a strategy to educate the public about NamUs, but as of June, there was still no plan or time frame for its implementation. 

The GAO stated that the Justice and Interior departments developing plans to meet the joint commission and other unfulfilled statutory requirements would provide more confidence that they are working to meet their legal responsibilities, as well as support tribal partners in reducing violent crime.

“Implementation of data-related requirements in new laws and ongoing data analysis present opportunities to increase understanding of the scope of the MMIW crisis,” the GAO report states.

The GAO report made four recommendations on addressing the MMIW crisis in the US, three for the Justice Department and one for the Interior Department. 

Ortiz said ​​GAO’s recommendations are more about making sure that there are plans for follow-through for work that has already been started by the Justice and Interior Department under the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s act.

“When GAO issues recommendations, we have a very robust follow-up process. We will be periodically checking in with those agencies,” Goodwin said, and both departments did agree to follow through with the recommendations the GAO produced. 

“They agreed to the recommendation and we know that they are starting efforts to implement these recs,” Goodwin added.

This story was produced by Arizona Mirror, an affiliate of of States Newsroom.

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.