Tag Archives: #MMIW

Original Sins

            Sometimes I feel like a am teaching America’s original sin.  I have felt that way a lot recently. Over the past week I have listened to the first six episodes of Connie Walker’s excellent new podcast, “Stolen: The Search for Jermain.”  She focuses on the disappearance, and also the life, of Jermain Charlo, a 23-year-old woman from the Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana who disappeared from Missoula in the summer of 2018. 

Family Hopes Increase In Reward May Help Locate Missing Montana Woman | MTPR

            During the final year of the Trump Administration, the President designated May 5th as “Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day,” and he established by executive order “Operation Lady Justice,” a task force given the charge to work toward solutions to this incredibly difficult problem.  Crimes against humanity are taking place, and even the buffoons in the Trump Administration had to act, even if it was nothing more than an attempt to lure Native American votes in advance of the election. It did not work. Just this week, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the formation of a special unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. to investigate crimes against Indigenous women. Native American women are murdered at a rate more than ten times the national average.

            The national media widely reported on Haaland’s announcement, a refreshing change.  More Americans are becoming aware of the pain and grief the #MMIW crisis is provoking in Native American communities, on reservations and off.  As Connie Walker pointed out in an interview on NPR, “this issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls isn’t a new issue.  This is something that has been going on for decades . . .centuries, even.”  What has changed in recent past, Walker continued, is “there’s a growing awareness of this crisis, and there’s a growing awareness about the impacts of that violence on the lives of Indigenous women and girls.”

            I worry that this crisis will not hold the attention of the American people for long.  Solving this project is one that demands empathy and historical understanding. Both have been in remarkably short supply of late.  There are no easy solutions, and it is difficult to truly discern the true scope of the problem. It has been going on for so long.

            It was there at the inception.  It was present when Christopher Columbus sailed into the Caribbean, his eyes scanning for those things that he hoped would make him a wealthy man. He found no gold, no silver, but he did see a young girl, swimming in the sea. “They should be good and intelligent servants, for I see that they say very quickly everything that is said to them; and I believe that they would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion.” In 1495, Columbus enslaved over 1600 Indians, and sent home to Spain “the best males and females.” 

                                    Columbus saw a girl,

                                    Splashing in the waves.

                                    He couldn’t find gold.

                                    So he started taking slaves.

            It never stops.  It rings in your ears as you read this history.  The Queen of Paspahegh, captured with her children by the English after they burned her town and wiped out the Algonquian soldiers who defended it. The English officer in charge allowed his men to throw the children into the James River, and to amuse themselves by blowing out their brains in the water.  The Queen of Paspahegh, traumatized land grieving her murdered children like so many Indigenous women, was led away from the English fort and stabbed to death in the woods by an executioner too weary to burn her. Algonquian women who surrendered during King Philip’s War in New England, trafficked and sent to death in West Indian Slavery, or torn limb from limb by English dogs of war.  The mutilation of Indigenous women’s bodies at Sand Creek and at other sites of genocidal violence.  The story has not stopped. Indigenous women go missing, and they die.

            Montana, where Jermain Charlo went missing, must be among the worst places for this. 
            I lived for four years in Montana. I taught at Montana State University at Billings, in a hellhole of a history department.  Students from the Crow Reservation were the largest minority on campus, and occasionally a faculty member let them know that they were an unwelcome minority as well.  I think about some of the Indigenous women who took my classes there, and the struggles they confronted. I think of the casual racism I heard in Billings, on campus and off.

            I think about my students in Geneseo as well. I imagine that many of them, when they lived at home, went out at night with their friends.  Your parents are not idiots, I told them.  They know you may be out having a good time. They know that sex and alcohol and drugs might be involved. They have to trust that you will make the right decisions.  Even when we parents do not trust you to make the right decision, we have to, I said.  You go out and you come home later than you said you would, and your parent might be angry, they might ask you lots of questions, they will pester you. You might see this as the ultimate buzzkill, or as disrespectful.  It might bother you that your parents do not seem to trust you, or that they worry so much.  I have children, so I share with my students one thing I know for certain: that when you get out of your parents’ sight, they worry.  When you are not where you said you would be when you said you would be there, no matter how old you are, they will worry because they are afraid.  We are afraid.  Really. Because there is nothing worse than thinking that something bad happened to your child, or that somebody hurt your child.  So, imagine, I tell them, the scene in your house if you did not come home.  Imagine the scene without you in it.  Imagine your parents planning your funeral or, perhaps, for years wondering what happened to you.  I think if you asked your parents, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to you?” they would say that something terrible happened to my child, or that someone hurt my child.  I know I would say that.  I ask my students to imagine what it would do to your parents to lose you.

            Because all the evidence suggests that thousands of Indigenous families in Canada and the United States experience this “worst thing.”  Savannah Grey Wind’s family, for instance. Savanna was eight months pregnant. Her neighbor in a Fargo apartment complex lured her inside, hit her on the head, and while she was still alive, ebbing in and out of consciousness, cut the baby out of her womb.  Together, Brooke Crews, that neighbor, and her boyfriend, cleaned up the blood, disposed of the clothing, and wrapped up Savannah’s body in plastic sheeting before dumping her body in the river, where kayakers found her some time later. They attempted to raise the baby as their own, before the authorities arrested them. The baby is how with her father.

            Or Mildred Old Crow, who disappeared in November of 2020.  She was eight years old.  Her body was found in February of 2021. Her guardians had been charged in tribal court for endangering the welfare of a minor.  Eight years old. Native Americans make up 7% of Montana’s population, according to one set of figures, but they comprise a full 25% of the missing persons in the state. In February of this year, accordig to another source, there were 167 active missing persons cases in Montana.  53 of them, or 31%, were indigenous.

Just a month before the discovery of Mildred’s body, authorities found the body of Selena Faye Not Afraid on the Crow Reservation. She was

Body found near Montana rest area confirmed to be Selena Not Afraid,  missing since New Year's Day
Selena Fay Not Afraid

sixteen.  She died of hypothermia, exposure, after walking away from a broken down car. It was January in Montana. It was viciously cold.  Why did she leave? What caused her to leave?

            And Kaysera Stops Pretty in Places. She was eighteen, played basketball and ran cross-country. She performed in school plays at Hardin High School and wanted to act.  She had been at a house party, but disappeared.  She was found several days later, by a passerby, who discovered her body behind a woodpile in the backyard of a different house. Nobody knows how she got there, and her cause of death is “undetermined.”

No cause of death found for Kaysera Stops Pretty Places; investigation  still active | Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women | billingsgazette.com
Kaysera Stops Pretty in Places

            It is difficult teaching this subject.  Sometimes it can grind you down.  It is difficult, I found, to listen to parts of Connie Walker’s podcast.  This is an enormous problem, but I am a historian.  Nothing is inevitable, I tell my students.  Every things has causes. This is not a force of nature or an act of God.  These are criminal acts by individuals committed against Indigenous women and girls. It does not have to be this way.  At least, that is what I believe. Why are so many Native American women and girls missing? Though there is still by all accounts a shortage of evidence as to the scope of problem, everyone acknowledges that the problem is substantial.  It is causing devastation and grief. You can read the tributes on Selena’s page at the Dahl Funeral Chapel. You can listen to the voices of Jermain Charlo’s friends and family members in “Stolen.”  It is right before your eyes. The government has slowly started to respond.

            Were these young women white, and had they disappeared from the suburbs, this problem would already have been solved. It only gets us so far to point out that truth.  These are often crimes committed on the margins, on remote reservations or in American cities where, if you want, you can feel as isolated and alone as if you were walking in the woods. None of them disappear without a trace.  There are clues, incomplete, but enough of the picture is complete to suggest that a solution to the puzzle is near.  And there are the people left behind: Jermain had two children, but also the sisters, friends, parents and relatives, concentric circles of grief, radiating outward like ripples on the surface of a pond.

The Donald and the Missing Girls

Well, that did not take long. Last week I published a piece in the Syracuse newspaper giving the Trump Administration qualified credit for appointing a task force, dubbed “Operation Lady Justice,” directed at addressing the problem of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and for issuing a proclamation making May 5th “Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day.

At a listening session yesterday, the Trump Administration unsurprisingly demonstrated that its real commitment to the issue is shallow and so limited as to be effectively meaningless. As Native Americans who attended the session yesterday pointed out, the President’s approval of pipe lines and other projects brings large numbers of non-native “man camps” into areas close to many Native American communities. Many observers have asserted that a relationship exists between such projects and reports of missing and murdered Native American women and girls. Indeed, Kristin Welch, a community organizer for Menikanaehkem, a Wisconsin group, asserted that cases of violence against Native American women are increased 70% by the presence of these man camps.

Task Force members repeatedly ignored these questions. When asked about the 1978 Oliphant decision, which held that non-Indians can not be held criminally liable for their actions on Indian land by tribal authorities, Task Force Member Marcia Good said that “Oliphant is currently beyond the scope of [Operation Lady Justice] at this time.”

Without restoring power to Native nations to allow them to prosecute the crimes non-Indians commit against Native American women, the Trump Administration has removed from the table what all experts assert is a vital part of any solution to this heart-wrenching problem. President Trump, in other words, supports policies that threaten to exacerbate the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women while permitting no discussion of a critical part of the solution. The Trump Administration is interested only in the appearance of action, except when it chooses to behave in a destructive manner.

The Justice Department is Working Hard and Standing Still

About a month ago the United States Department of Justice issued its report on Indian Country Investigations and Prosecutions.  The report includes a wealth of data on how and why the Justice Department decided to prosecute or not prosecute violent crime committed in Indian Country.  As AP writer Mary Hudetz put it, the Justice Department’s “track record for prosecuting Indian Country crimes has not significantly changed in recent years, even amid programs and attempts to boost both public safety and prosecutions on tribal lands”

The Justice Department declined to prosecute in 37% of the cases referred to it. The most common explanation for this, DOJ officials wrote, was a lack of reliable evidence. 

Read the Justice Department’s press release announcing the report.  You will not be able to miss the celebratory tone. DOJ officials appear genuinely proud of what the department has done.  For critics, however, with violence against Native American women drawing increasing scrutiny and legislative attention, there is an enormous amount of additional work that needs to be done.  A week before the DOJ released its report, Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s “Savanna’s Act” advanced in the Senate. 

Savanna LaFontaine-Graywind

Heitkamp’s bill drew its inspiration from Savanna La Fontaine-Greywind, who was murdered in 2017 in Fargo, (you can read about her story on this blog here)  and the shattering report by the Urban Indian Health Institute, which indicated that of the 5712 cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) reported in 2016, only 116 case were logged on the Department of Justice Database.  95% of the cases studied by the Urban Indian Health Institute never were covered by the media. 

So two stories.  One, a story of progress, of resources committed, actions taken, and jobs well done.  The other, indicating that despite these efforts and actions, much more must be done.


I posted about the Senate Indian Affairs Committee meeting on human trafficking in Indian Country last week.  The upshot of the hearings was disappointing.  All acknowledge a problem exists but there is little data on its scope.  At the hearings, the Justice Department seemed uninterested to committing the resources necessary to gather that data.  Anyone who studies Native American history closely will note, however, that the Justice Department has never prioritized crime committed in Indian Country. Though the Obama Administration’s revision of the Violence Against Women Act was significant, the reform went only so far.  Fortunately, more attention is being drawn to this problem.

Some important work is being done and some media are beginning to take notice.   The National Collaborating Center for Aboriginal Health in Canada has published a report, Indigenous Communities and Family Violence: Changing the Conversation, that presents domestic violence in Indian reserves as one more of the bitter fruits of an enduring colonialism.   They offer a powerful list of recommendations calling upon provincial and national officials to recognize indigenous perspectives, the continuing process of colonialism and dispossession, and the many values that inhere in native cultures to remedy the problem of violence on Indian reserves. It is a powerful report, and worth reading.

To get a sense of the problems that occur, both from within indigenous families and from the outside, it is worth looking at the recent report from Red Power Media. While Americans are reeling from yet another explosion of gun violence, and the disaster that has struck Puerto Rico made worse by the nation’s disaster of a president, an indigenous community in British Columbia is worried.   In response to the growth of “man camps,” so-called,  a British Columbia indigenous community tribe is  stocking up on rape kits in anticipation of the expected wholesale assault on Native American women.

“Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation is nestled on the banks of Stuart Lake in north-central British Columbia, surrounded by rolling foothills and tall trees.

It is a relatively remote community, breathtaking in scenery and dependent on economic opportunities in forestry, mining, and pipeline development. It is a community bracing for major change.

Over the next decade, as many as 6,000 new energy industry workers could descend upon the region. The prospect of such a big influx of workers living in nearby “man camps” has aroused fears of increased violence and drug use.

The influx could more than double the population of about 4,500 in the Fort St. James area, which includes the municipality, rural communities and First Nations. Nak’azdli has just 1,972 members living both on and off reserves. The nearest city, Prince George, is 160 kilometres away.”

The threat is significant.  The Lake Babine First Nation and the Nak’azdli Whut’en commissioned a study, funded by the British Columbia provincial government.  The evidence they found demonstrated

that industrial camps are associated with increased rates of sexual assault and violence against Indigenous women, along with addiction, sexually transmitted infections, and family violence.

“The potential for sexual assault, violence, disappearances, (sexually transmitted diseases), increases with the number of trucks on the road,” study author Ginger Gibson told National Observer. “There’s a whole whack of issues that don’t get considered until construction is happening and that’s too late.”

Meanwhile, in North Dakota, after the murder of pregnant Savanna La Fontaine Greywind, (that’s her in the picture to the right) her family hired attorney Gloria Allred to represent them in a search for answers.  LaFontaine-Greywind’s murder–her body was found in the Red River, her newborn baby in the hands of one of the suspects-along with the hiring of Allred created enough pressure at last to get officials in North Dakota to expand their investigation.  North Dakota’s state senate has finally decided to look into the “epidemic” of missing and murdered indigenous women.

Under pressure, the Justice Department has announced grants programs to investigate the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women, as well as violence against women and children in Indian Country.  $130 million has been directed to addressing these challenges.  According to Assistant Attorney General Rachel Brand, “these awards stand as a clear expression of our support for Native American women and tribal self-determination and reflect the vital role we believe American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages play in ensuring the safety of all our citizens.”

Another way to get at the scope of this enormous problem, is to follow it on social media, using the hashtags #IdleNoMore and #MMIW.  A Facebook page exists to help in locating and, in some instances, identifying missing and murdered indigenous women.   If you know of additional resources, please forward them to me and I will be sure to distribute them as widely as I can.