Inside the Fight for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Inside the Fight for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
Illustration: Angelica Alzona/GMG
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Bridget Perrier had the room frozen.

Perrier, an Ojibway activist and cofounder of Sex Trade 101, a Toronto-based organization for survivors of sex trafficking, was joined by three other survivors in front of an audience of roughly two dozen. The event, a four-person panel at Bluestockings, a radical bookstore in lower Manhattan, was loose in nature. There was no moderator. No land acknowledgement. The four survivors—Sheila Lamb, Christine Stark, and Patti Larsen, and Perrier—simply sat down and talked about their relationships to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) crisis.

The stories were heartbreaking and viscerally violent. Perrier talked about how, at just 12 years old, she was pulled into the sex trade, sold to a ship captain named Charlie, and forced to ride in the hull of a cargo ship that set out from Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada, and then shuffled through different ports, with one in Duluth, MN, serving as a major hotspot. Stark spoke about her time being exploited for pornography and the realities of trying to get politicians to pay attention. Larsen talked about being date-raped at 57 years old, just under a year prior to the panel.

For audience members new to the MMIWG crisis, the stories were a horrific awakening. For the survivors on the panel and in the crowd, it was the worst moments of their life relived.

Indigenous women, be they in a city or on a reservation, have for decades been among the most unprotected members of North American society. In 2016, the National Crime Information Center recorded 5,712 cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women or girls in America; as was highlighted by the Urban Indian Health Institute’s groundbreaking 2018 MMIWG report, just 116 of those were logged in NamUs, the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database.

While Perrier and the panel mainly illustrated the crisis in relation to sex trafficking, the nonconsensual selling of people for sexual exploitation, it stretches further. You can also blame the serial rapists, murderers, abusers, inefficient county police departments, apathetic federal investigators, capitalistic private prisons, soulless fossil fuel companies and their man camps, under-funded and male-dominated tribal law enforcement departments, ignorant federal governments, and scrambling state legislators.

Yet instead of Indigenous women being buried by government-enforced anonymity, the opposite has happened. Indigenous women couldn’t count on their governments to listen, especially when the people there had so little factual knowledge of their communities. So they stormed them. They ran for seats in state and federal legislatures, they formed grassroots movements, they flooded social media. They launched investigations when the police would not. They sat on panels and they walked out of them when exclusionary language was deployed. They have repeatedly acted, filling a centuries-long void of inaction left open by the governments that make up the United States.

Now, more attention than ever is being paid by local and federal governments in North America. With Indigenous women at the forefront, there is an ongoing push in state legislatures across the country to form task forces and complete MMIWG studies.

But there is still a long way to go, both in getting that legislation passed and, as subsequent events at Bluestockings showed, in even deciding if the movement will be truly inclusive of all people who identify as women. Two-spirit and trans women and girls have had to fight, and continue to fight, for their rightful inclusion within feminist movements, and that fight continues within the Native community as well.

The past two years have featured the most sustained legislative efforts to fight the MMWIG crisis in living memory.

With the UIHI report serving as a statistical spark, legislation to form official task forces and statewide studies aimed at adequately tracking the missing and murdered women has appeared in droves, mainly in states with sizable Indigenous voting populations.

These studies are meant to be a first step—a way for the various state governments to understand what Indigenous communities have known anecdotally for centuries.

In the North Dakota legislature, Rep. Ruth Buffalo, an enrolled citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, has introduced a bill which stipulates the state’s law enforcement employees undergo training provided by the North Dakota Human Trafficking Commission. That bill is still in the nascent stages of the legislative process. Another bill of Buffalo’s calls for the inclusion of a sorting option for Indigenous people in the state’s repository for missing persons.

“If there’s no data then it’s like there’s not a problem,” Buffalo told Splinter. “It doesn’t exist.”

In South Dakota, state Rep. Tamara St. John, an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of Dakota and a Republican—the MMWIG issue is not being handled as a partisan issue, for the most part—has helped shepherd three separate bills tackling the crisis. One bill, which called for uniform MMIWG guidelines and the sharing of data across law enforcement agencies, passed unanimously in both chambers.

“The difference between me and a non-tribal legislator is that I live it every day,” St. John said.

That’s not all. Legislation has passed in Washington state that mandates annual reports on the progress being made to update the state’s missing person’s tracking system, and a similar bill has been written in New Mexico. In Arizona, lawmakers are attempting to mandate that local law enforcement work alongside tribal police to combat the issue. There are also bills in Nebraska and Montana currently working their way through the legislature.

New Mexico state Rep. Andrea Romero, a Democrat and non-Native politician representing Santa Fe, told Splinter that she got involved in the issue after being approached by a chaplain in the state police who had “seen numerous [criminal investigations] that had been discussed or attempted but never followed through with.”

Romero said she and the New Mexico legislators behind the bill wanted the tribal governments to be leading the task force alongside, not beneath, the state government. To guarantee that, Romero paired with groups like Indigenous Women Rising to write the legislation, which requires a task force tackling the crisis to feature representation from the 17 pueblos and all of the state’s tribal nations.

“Our approach was not to allow the state to lead from just a public safety perspective,” Romero told Splinter on a recent phone call. “But to ensure our sovereign nations were brought to the table and leading in that effort.”

The hard work to center tribal nations and Indigenous women in the initial state legislature responses is close to paying off. But as was on full display at the Bluestockings panel, the decisions around who is ultimately included in these state-sponsored counts are far from set.

Sitting in a Brooklyn coffee shop, Noel Altaha, Courtney Coco Brown, and Regan Loggans talked to me about what had happened next at the Bluestockings event.

Roughly 90 minutes in, Perrier brought the event crashing to a halt. After acknowledging that she was going to attract controversy, she said that two-spirit and trans Indigenous people should not be included in the solutions to the MMIWG crisis. Perrier said that while she sympathized with their situations, she believed that those two groups need to be sectioned off from the policy responses, as the issue is solely about people who were born biologically female.

The comment prompted four audience members, including Loggans, an art historian and anthropologist and member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians seated in the second row, to stand up and walk outside immediately. Loggans, who uses “they/them” pronouns, re-entered the bookstore about five minutes later and waited for Perrier to finish her current train of thought before saying that they were “disappointed” in her comments.

Two more audience members followed Loggans out the door when Lamb attempted to follow up on the initial comment by saying that her culture characterizes women by their ability to carry “the life water,” referring to amniotic fluids.

Following Perrier’s and Lamb’s comments, all four panelists eventually attempted to state emphatically that they were not transphobic, but that rather they were, as Perrier said, just trying to “speak their truth.” Christine Stark, who had been silent for about 20 minutes of the open discussion, said that she was a lesbian and admitted that she was “pretty uncomfortable” with the direction the panel had taken.

Loggans attended the event with a group of women from the Indigenous Womxns Collective, a New York City-based group founded by Altaha, a social worker in the city and a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe who was also in attendance and among the people to walk out. Speaking about a week after the event, Loggans expressed why they felt they had to step out.

“I don’t like this idea within the Native community [that] because we’re products of genocide that we have to accept everyone, because our population was and is being decimated,” Loggans told me. “[The panelists] are people who are providing an inaccurate and are participating in problematic rhetoric… It’s a violent act but I’m supposed to be like, ‘You’re my auntie, I support you’? No.”

The panel had morphed into an open discussion and rehashing of the relevant tenets of radical second wave feminism—specifically, the thoroughly debated concept of needing to protect and single out so-called “women-born women.” Various Native communities have long histories of honoring and uplifting two-spirit and trans individuals; while violently imposed heteronormative settler ideals reversed that open-mindedness for some tribes, recent movements—like the rise of two-spirit powwows—have re-centered and uplifted those community members.

After Lamb’s statement about “life water,” a number audience members interjected, speaking up about how the “patriarchy demands a binary” and how rather than excluding trans and non-gender conforming and two-spirit Indigenous people, the panelists and the wider response to the crisis should “make a bigger table.”

“I know plenty of trans people that can give birth,” Loggans told me. “Also, like who gives a shit? If I can give birth, that’s cool—I don’t want to. I know trans people who have the ability to give birth and I know trans women who can’t and want to. Giving birth is not synonymous to womanhood, and if it was then I can’t ever identify as those things.”

Altaha told Splinter that she helped coordinate the group’s attendance of the panel, having both a connection to the event coordinators and the MMIWG crisis. None of the three Collective members Splinter interviewed expected the conversation to take a turn against the two-spirit and transgender communities, nor did they expect the stark anti-sex work sentiments held by the panelists.

Loggans said that they blamed the panelists, the bookstore, and Riayn Spaero—a producer of Daughters, a film about the crisis, who organized a livestream of the panel and invited the Collective to the event—for the incident. Loggans claimed that Spaero told them after the event that she had explicitly asked Perrier not to broach the subject of trans people.

In an email response several days following a one-on-one interview with Splinter, Spaero said that Perrier had called her a week before the event to “express concern over being misconstrued or misinterpreted as transphobic—in addition to people not understanding why she, a survivor, would be anti-sex work,” and that she had told her that “if she had concerns of being received as transphobic it is something not allowed in the space [and that Bluestockings] reserves the right to remove people who violate their safer space policy.”

Speaking with Perrier after the event, she was unapologetic about her comments but told Splinter she was “upset” that she had put Loggans in a position where they felt they needed to walk out. Lamb was visibly shaken by the events, saying she “really didn’t expect” the audience to be so contentious or for the conversation to take the turn that it did. After the majority of the crowd had dispersed, Lamb stood with a friend on the sidewalk outside Bluestockings and cried.

Similar discussions of who gets to be included in the MMIWG solutions are happening across the country.

North Dakota Rep. Buffalo, for instance, used the term “MMIP” (Missing and Murdered Indigenous People) in her legislation.  

“We know there’s a high rising number of men that go missing as well,” she told Splinter. “And not only men, but we also have two-spirit and trans people, so ‘people’ was all-inclusive. We thought that if and when North Dakota catches up to include all genders in their language, this would already be ahead of the mark.”

Loggans pushed back on opening the crisis definition all the way up when we spoke, saying that while they are not opposed to advocating for Native men and boys affected by the crisis, they believe a crisis-level response by American, Canadian, and tribal governments should focus on the the people that are the most vulnerable and the most affected. And as they pointed out, study after study after study after study has borne out the fact that trans women of color have been targeted at higher rates than their cisgendered counterparts.

Rachael Lorenzo is Mescalero Apache, Laguna Pueblo, and Xican; in late 2013, they founded Indigenous Women Rising, one of the groups that pushed Rep. Romero to fight for MMIWG legislation in New Mexico. Lorenzo identifies as gender non-binary and told Splinter on a recent phone call that IWR works closely with groups like Equality New Mexico and the Transgender Resource Center to ensure that the state’s full LGBTQ community is supported when lawmakers go to the table.

“[New Mexico Indigenous communities] have a lot of trans folks who are taking part in our traditions,” Lorenzo said. “I definitely support that kind of effort to make sure that language is as inclusionary as possible. But because there wasn’t a whole lot of time, it wasn’t part of [the New Mexico legislation’s] strategy and it wasn’t part of the discussion, to be quite frank. But I definitely would support that.”

Another facet of the MMIWG crisis that’s been underreported and was broached by both Lorenzo and Altaha is the fact that it is not one ground in a recent spurt of random actors, but that a wide range of socioeconomic and jurisdictional factors play into the state and federal governments’ decisions to ostracize and ignore the cries that have been coming from tribal nations. This inevitably has led to a vacuum in the legislation where financial and communal support should be for the families of survivors or victims that are left permanently fractured by the sudden loss of a loved one.

Altaha echoed that reality when she made the decision to share her personal story with Splinter to illustrate the holes glaringly present in the opening salvos of the various statewide responses.

“There’s MMIW, which kind of leads you to think about a perpetrator,” Altaha said. “If you look back at my mom’s story, she was a complicated, amazing, beautiful, frustrating person. But it’s like everyone’s focused on the act of the disappearance—the day that she was murdered—instead of the life that she led and the ways that we failed her. We need to include women who were mass incarcerated.”

Altaha continued: “After my mom passed, I got shipped to boarding school—my family didn’t know what to do with me. So then, at 19, I went to tribal court and got guardianship of my two sisters and I raised them on my own. Nobody looked out for us or asked, ‘Do you need help to go the courts?’ .... We don’t want to look at that as a society. When Betty goes missing, all of our phones go off and we hear about that.”

The unfortunate reality is that the required solutions to the MMIWG crisis demand a balance of nuance and urgency and humanity that simply does not exist in American government, not yet at least. Just because legislation is being introduced doesn’t mean state governments are embracing the movement with open arms.

In Minnesota, for instance, Stark is still fighting alongside state Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux, to get a task force bill passed eight years after producing a harrowing report of sex trafficking whose contents provoked widespread outrage. Despite support in the Minnesota State House, a version of the bill has repeatedly stalled in the Senate. Likewise, Hanna’s Act, the Montana bill that would have created a missing persons specialist within the state Department of Justice, was defeated in the state Senate on March 25 by Republican members of their Senate Judiciary Committee, despite passing the House 99–0.

The effort to pass legislation through the U.S. Congress—a body boasting a long engrained history of systemic racism against its Indigenous population—hasn’t proved much more inspiring.

“Frustrating” was one word Buffalo, the North Dakota state representative, reached for when trying to describe the situation she found herself in on March 14, when she traveled to D.C. to serve as a majority witness for the U.S. House Subcommittee for Indigenous People of the United States. “Amazing” and “powerful” were two others.

Buffalo was a volunteer searcher when Savanna Greywind, a pregnant 22-year-old North Dakota woman and member of the Spirit Lake Nation, first went missing. Buffalo and dozens of others spent days scouring the outskirts of Fargo, trying to reconnect the member of the Spirit Lake Nation with her family. Greywind was eventually found dead in August 2017, having been horrifically mutilated by her killers.

And so, on March 14, Buffalo joined three other Native women leaders and spoke to the members of the House subcommittee—among them Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of two Native women in Congress and the loudest voice in Congress on the issue—on her experience working to solve the crisis.

“Every Native American is, by default, an educator because our true history is not in the history books or is not represented even at the congressional level,” Buffalo told Splinter. “I’m hoping that we did the families who have suffered the loss of a loved one—we just hope that we did these families justice in our testimonies. We feel like there’s still a lot more educating to be done on who we are as people.”

As a result of the work completed by Buffalo and the Greywind support group, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota championed a bill that would come to be known as Savanna’s Act in back-to-back congressional sessions, with her 2018 push coming painfully close to passing.

After the bill was unanimously approved by the Senate, it went to the House. More specifically, it went to the desk of the Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Goodlatte’s red-lined version of the bill, first obtained and published by Splinter, was essentially a wholesale root canal, stripping all of the resource-based law enforcement compliance incentives from the bill. With his edits being a non-starter, the bill was stuck in committee and wiped away with the end of the congressional session.

Upon Heitkamp’s election loss, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska pledged to continue the fight for Savanna’s Act; she followed through on that promise, reintroducing the bill in January, complete with the incentives for law enforcement departments.

Given that the loophole-laden Violence Against Women Act was allowed to expire at the conclusion of the 2018 congressional session—it wasn’t until the 2013 reauthorization of the bill that tribal nations were even granted jurisdiction over non-Native domestic abusers, and even then, tribes still can’t prosecute non-Natives for sexual assault or homicide—there’s little faith that the answer lies in a federal response. (The House passed its VAWA reauthorization bill on April 4 that expanded protections for Indigenous women, but its chances of passing the Senate are slim.) Every single legislator and organizer Splinter spoke with agreed that the solutions for the crisis will be found locally.

At the same time, the reality is that many of the cases demand resources available only to FBI and state police. As was highlighted by a fiery Sen. Jon Tester during a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing in December, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Institute of Justice, and the FBI have horrendously failed to work in unison on missing Indigenous persons cases, leaving families in the dark.

Arizona state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, whose father is an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation, told Splinter that the federal precedent of miscommunication often bleeds down to the local and tribal law enforcement departments.

“One of the big issues that we have in Arizona is that urban law enforcement agencies are not tracking a lot of this data,” Jermaine wrote Splinter. “Another is that state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies are not working cross-jurisdictionally to solve these crimes.”

To that end, Sen. Murkowski has since teamed with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto to introduce the Not Invisible Act, which would create a committee of local, tribal, and federal leaders and charge them with the task of informing the Justice Department and Interior Department on ideal solutions.

But even among the lawmakers tackling MMIWG, there is a clear desire for a more unified effort state-to-state. In our interview, Buffalo admitted that she hadn’t heard from other state politicians about her initiatives but is hopeful for the future. St. John asked if I knew how many other states had passed task force legislation. Kunesh-Podein told me to plant the seed of a MMIWG state legislator conference with the other representatives I had interviews scheduled with.

“It’s an important conversation that needs to happen at every level of government because every level of government impacts tribal communities,” Buffalo told Splinter.

You can look through the family pictures of Lakota Renville, or Savanna Greywind, or Sheena Between Lodges or Hanna Harris or Henny Stops or Lauren Small-Rodriguez or Courtney LaFranier or Kristine Howato or thousands of other Indigenous women and girls that have either gone missing or been found murdered, and decry a young life being snatched too soon.

After you have done that, what remains, in between the historical inaction and the haunting realities of the abuse afflicted upon Indigenous women, is a creeping sense of familiarity. Terese Mailhot, the best-selling author of Heart Berries, made this fact painfully clear in a searing piece for Pacific Standard in January—the repetitive nature of these unique, individual stories of Indigenous women either going missing or turning up dead is so intertwined to the experience of originating from one of these Indigenous communities that it can have a near-numbing effect.

Through listening to the people on the front lines of this fight, it’s clear that the country—really, the entire continent—is still very much in the initial stage of forming a response to a crisis based in the inherently genocidal form of colonialism. There is no quick fix or easy solution. The only option is to keep listening to the Indigenous women on the frontlines.

For the people still in the fight, for the friends with lost friends, for the grieving families, for the survivors, there is hope being built by the people most affected by this destructive inter-generational crisis. While the necessary conversations and boundaries of the crisis still very clearly need to be hashed out and discussed in the open air, it is thanks to Indigenous women across the continent that there is any conversation at all.

Correction, 3:32 p.m. ET: This piece originally said that there was “no smudging ceremony” at the Bluestockings event. While there was no ceremony during the event itself, one took place about 30 minutes before it began.