Research shows that Indigenous women and girls are more likely to experience violence compared to women of other ethnicities, but it’s a crisis that’s difficult to grasp because no one knows exactly how many have been taken or killed. With no comprehensive method for tracking cases, the website Justice for Native Women is a grassroots initiative to record these victims across the United States and Canada.
The work of Justice for Native Women, along with federal data sources, helped a team from Arizona State University to analyze this issue for 18 months as part of a statewide effort. The work was done thanks to a law that was passed by the state legislature in 2019, setting up a 23-member legislative study committee, which included many Native American members. The goal was to identify barriers to tracking the violence, analyze the existing data and produce recommendations to solve the crisis. The final report was released earlier this month.
Kate Fox, associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and the ASU team worked with the legislative study committee on examining the data — which is severely lacking.
“Our first finding is something that is well known within the Indigenous community, which is that the data on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is incomplete. It really is something that is very difficult to measure quantitatively because of so many different problems, systemic problems, that interfere with the accurate and methodically sound categorization of this crisis,” said Fox, director of the Research on Violent Victimization Lab at ASU.
One reason is racial misclassification by law enforcement agencies.
“They may find a body and not go through the proper channels to identify properly that this person was indeed Indigenous,” she said. “This happens especially where someone might have a Hispanic last name, and that person might accidentally but incorrectly be categorized as Hispanic when in fact they may be Indigenous.”
Another reason is that when adults go missing, it’s not necessarily a crime, Fox said.
“This muddies the waters in terms of family members who know that their loved ones are missing, but it’s sometimes very difficult to get a missing persons report initiated,” she said. That can hamper access to services for victims.
The team contacted 92 nontribal police departments and of the 36 agencies that responded, only one, the Prescott Valley Police Department, allowed for officers to manually input tribal affiliation in a report. The others combined American Indian/Alaska Native into one category.
Other barriers to tracking violence include jurisdictional issues, distrust of law enforcement and infrastructure challenges that prevent the use of Amber or Silver Alerts in Indian Country, according to the report.
The ASU team used data from Justice for Native Women as well as from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System and the FBI Supplemental Homicide Report. They found that 160 Indigenous females and 474 Indigenous males were known to be murdered from 1976 to 2018, with Maricopa County having the highest number of victims. The average age of the female victims is 31.
“From the data we have access to, we are seeing a very clear and consistent trend over the last 40 years, from 1976, that missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has been steadily increasing,” Fox said. “This is an alarming trend.”
The legislative study committee was led by state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, of the White Earth Ojibwe.
“We have also seen that missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is not just a rural reservation problem,” she said. “Maricopa County and our urban police departments also see a significant number of these cases, which underscores our need for state-level attention to this issue.”
Other authors conducted a field study of families and law enforcement agencies, evaulated the Arizona Victims Compensation Fund and examined criminal jurisdictional issues.
The final report includes more than 60 recommendations.
“Many systemic factors come into play that created missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and those are rooted in racial injustice, racism, oppression and colonization,” Fox said.
“No one-size-fits-all approach will correct this issue.”
The recommendations are in the areas of victim services, resource allocation, training, law enforcement, data collection, collaboration and legislation. Among them:
- Establish a 24-hour hotline to report missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and address related needs, such as domestic violence services.
- Create culturally competent sexual-assault response teams within tribal communities and border towns.
- Require annual training for all professionals, especially police officers, on cultural responsiveness.
- Implement a consistent missing-persons policy statewide.
- Develop a multi-jurisdictional “endangered missing advisory” system to promote collaboration.
- Establish methods for gathering data by tribal affiliation.
- Require Arizona to participate in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
- Establish an Arizona State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force.
Several of the recommendations called for more money for agencies and initiatives to fight the problem.
“There’s chronic underfunding of Indigenous communities,” Fox said.
Fox said that a permanent state office run by Indigenous people that would partner with all 22 state tribes also is crucial.
“This would enable coordination of training, resource allocation, relationship-building, collaboration, data fidelity — all of those things that could be centralized and run by Indigenous people to ensure cultural competence,” she said.
The Arizona law is part of nationwide reckoning on missing and murdered Indigenous women. Last month, President Donald Trump signed two bills, the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act, to establish a commision on violent crime and set law enforcement guidelines between the federal government and tribes to help track, solve and prevent crimes against Native Americans.
The issue of missing and murdered women and girls is solvable but the effort must be led by Indigenous communities, Fox said. The ASU project, while unfunded, was able to find funding for several Native American student workers.
“Because it impacts a community that is in some ways hidden from mainstream society, and because it is cloaked in all sorts of complex oppression and racial discrimination and cultural insensitivity by non-Native Americans, I think people don’t think of it as solvable,” Fox said.
“But it certainly is possible to solve this crisis. And it will take collaboration and partnerships across party lines, across jurisdictions, across genders and across races to reduce missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.”