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History students raise awareness on missing and murdered Indigenous women


Ryan O'Connell / THE GATEPOST

By Ryan O'Connell

Arts & Features Editor


A student panel hosted a discussion related to the disproportionate amount of violence against Indigenous women when compared to other groups, in collaboration with the Center for Inclusive Excellence Nov. 30.


The discussion, titled “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW),” was the third and final event facilitated by the Center for Inclusive Excellence (CIE) for Native American Heritage Month.


The event was the third of three “History in the Making” discussions, all led by a student panel consisting of history majors Danni Marquez, a junior, and seniors Abigayle Versackas and Jon Ribeiro.


Marquez said many cases of missing Indigenous women are connected to police brutality, which is on the rise but not seeing more media attention or discussion. She added this is because of the lack of protection for Indigenous groups in both the United States and Canada.


“According to the CDC, homicide is the third leading cause of death [for] Indigenous women between the ages of 12 and 30 years old,” she said.


Marquez added the media coverage of cases involving missing Indigenous women is still disproportionate, and gives less focus to non-white women. She noted the death of Gabby Petito in 2021, and the media coverage she saw compared to the murders of Indigenous women.


Ribeiro then shared some statistics related to violence against Indigenous women. “Indigenous women are murdered at a 10 times higher rate than all other ethnicities,” he said.


“In 2016 there were over 5,700 reports of missing Indian and Alaskan Native women and girls, though the U.S. Department of Justice federal missing persons database - also known as NamUs - only logged 116 of these cases,” he said.


Ribeiro added the victims ranged from less than 1 year old to 83 years old.


He said since the U.S. legal system doesn’t record most cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, it’s extremely hard to maintain statistics of their cases due to the reliance on individual reservations’ law enforcement agencies to contribute.


He added there are a lot of factors as to why Indigenous women see increased rates of violent crimes, and shared that the bureaucracy of jurisdiction often causes problems - since reservations are federally protected, the question of who investigates a crime is difficult to answer.


Ribeiro added Indigenous people have legitimate reasons to be skeptical of cooperating with government officials, due both to historical instances and modern ones, and that language barriers might also make it difficult to assist law enforcement.


He said Indigenous women are oftentimes considered “the lesser dead” by law enforcement, or rationalized to have “just run away,” and were not worth expending resources on. Ribeiro added this contributes to the racism, sexism, and stereotyping of Indigenous people.


“Oftentimes, Indigenous people face a lot of barriers in terms of racism, stereotypes - that they are considered drunks or drug addicts and therefore they must be missing because they are pursuing an addiction,” he said.


Versackas then discussed some of the activism surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women, such as the “red hand,” a red or black handprint painted over the mouth to symbolize the stories of women whose voices have been oppressed and drowned out.


She added the handprint criticizes the silence of the U.S. and Canadian governments, and the lack of acknowledgement from them.


Versackas said the racism, sexism, and stereotypes against missing and murdered Indigenous women are a “direct legacy of colonization and colonialism.”


She also discussed the ribbon skirt, a traditional Native American garment which has come back into public focus alongside the rise in missing and murdered Indigenous women.


She added the ribbons skirts, often colored, represent different meanings, such as yellow being associated with a “survival of suicide or remembrance of a loved one who committed suicide.”


Versackas said a rainbow stripe represents the LGBT+ Indigenous in Two-Spirit communities. She added Chevi Rabbit, an Indigenous journalist, said residential schools taught a lot of Indigenous communities how to hate gender-diverse people.


Versackas said part of her role as a Two-Spirit advocate is to bring back Two-Spirit dignity and respect within communities.


She added while the title of the discussion was “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women,” these crimes don’t only affect them. “They affect Two-Spirit folks, non-binary folks, trans folks, queer folks, and men as well.


“We did want to focus this discussion on women, because it disproportionately affects women in particular, but I just want to emphasize that this isn’t just a women’s issue,” Versackas said. “It’s a queer issue, it’s an Indigenous issue, it’s a womens’ issue as well.”


Attendees then discussed their initial thoughts and feelings about missing and murdered Indigenous women, and their exposure to the issue prior to the discussion.


Kaya Baptiste, a history major, said they remembered a kidnapping and murder of an Indigenous female peer in high school, and that the case received little to no news coverage. She added Indigenous women need more recognition in public media.


An attendee then asked about the connection between domestic violence cases and missing or murdered Indigenous women, or if there was any significant relationship between missing women and abuse.


Ribeiro responded that the 5,700-plus missing womens cases included ones involving domestic violence, and said abuse cases were also a conversation about poverty.


“Not to say if you are impoverished it means that you’re going to be violent in a relationship, but there’s certainly a correlation of stressors that bring about those factors in a relationship,” he said.


“And so a lot of these numbers do combine that, but we don’t want to at the same time potentially blame Indigenous men for any of this, because that is not entirely the case,” said Ribeiro.


Versackas added 55.5% of Indigenous women have been physically abused by their partners at some point, according to nativewomenswilderness.org.


Kathleen Barnard, student engagement coordinator of the Whittemore Library, asked if the barriers erected by the bureaucracy of who can investigate crimes involving reservations and their inhabitants was reflected in any statistics involving missing and murdered Indigenous women.


Ribeiro said a case can become a “bureaucratic nightmare” to try to determine who has the jurisdiction when people living on a reservation commit a crime outside of it, or vice versa.


The discussion then gravitated to the mistreatment and bias against cases involving sex work. Eric Nguyen, director of the CIE, said that it was “a good reminder of intersectionality at play,” and how holding multiple marginalized identities can lead to a compounding sense of discrimination.


He added this contributes to a sense of dehumanizing missing and murdered Indigenous women whose cases are never followed up on, and the prevalence of victim blaming in situations involving sex workers.


Attendees discussed their thoughts on how to prevent Indigenous women from becoming victims of violence. Baptiste said she imagined it would never stop, while others discussed some of the actions which could combat it.


They discussed practical contributions students could make, such as sharing missing and murdered Indigenous women’s stories and advocating for public transit in areas where Indigenous people don’t have access to safe and reliable transportation.


The panel reminded the audience that Indigenous people still exist today, contrary to the way Native Americans are perceived in many history books, and how they could help advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women.


“We are actively living on Indigenous land. Indigenous people are a part of society today,” Versackas said. “It’s important to know that Indigenous people exist with and among us today, and right now as we’re talking, they’re not a community of the past.”


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