Last week, after I ended my hour-long interview with Tyler Hiebert, a doctoral student focusing on contemporary Native American issues, I came to the conclusion that the American treatment of its Native population is far worse than I understood.
Hiebert told me that Native Americans are the most disadvantaged group in nearly every socioeconomic indicator: wealth level, education level, mental illness, substance abuse. The list of devastating issues goes on and on. After our discussion, I was convinced that the grievances endured by indigenous people, especially violence toward women, must be acknowledged by the American people, who all too often conveniently forget about the lives and struggles of their indigenous peers.
“One of the biggest problems facing Canadian and American reservations is missing and murdered indigenous women,” Hiebert said. In Canada, the number of First Nations women who have gone missing or been murdered since 1970 is estimated to be between 1,000 and 4,000. Hiebert is certain that number is much higher in the United States but to an unknown extent.
There is no consensus on how frequently Native women are disappearing and getting murdered on reservations — one of the reasons academics like Hiebert are studying this issue so closely. The most cited number is from the National Crime Information Center, which estimates that there are 5,172 missing Native American women, although experts like Hiebert believe that number is higher, factoring in unreported incidents and bureaucratic missteps.
Native American reservations are designated sovereign nations, which allows indigenous tribes to self-govern within the United States. The FBI and the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs do have law enforcement jurisdiction over reservations and their interference and resources are reserved for the most serious crimes. In the crucial first 24 hours after a person goes missing, Native Americans are often left with what former North Dakota Federal Prosecutor Tim Purdon called “undertrained and underfunded” tribal police forces. Combined with the lack of physical and human capital in the sparsely populated, massive geographic areas of reservations, a missing person is less likely to be found there than in a crowded urban setting.
This lack of law enforcement resources is a deadly combination with the high rate of domestic violence and abuse occurring within Native American communities — which could also be an effect of mental health and substance abuse on reservations. The Indian Health Service lists intimate partner violence, which includes such crimes as domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking, as a “significant” problem in Native American and Alaska Native communities. A 2008 CDC study found that 39 percent of Native women surveyed identified as victims of intimate partner violence. Native American women have a magnified risk of violence, and it is sadly safe to assume that some of this violence ends in deaths that never get solved.
It’s vital we acknowledge the structural causes of violence against Native American women on reservations, but we must also acknowledge and correct the racist root of this violence. While explaining the causes of the murder epidemic’s severity, Ivan Macdonald, a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, told the Associated Press: “It boils down to racism. You could sort of tie it into poverty or drug use or some of those factors … [but] the federal government doesn’t really give a crap at the end of the day.”
I can understand why Macdonald is pessimistic about seeking a solution to this murder epidemic. Throughout its history, the United States has enacted legislation and perpetuated discriminatory actions toward Native Americans. But to recognize the subconscious racism of this particular crisis, we don’t have to look farther than the outsized media coverage of missing or murdered white women. The media — and conservative media in particular — is quick to provide constant coverage of disappearances and to demand action when young white women go missing, an impulse fully on display this summer when 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts went missing and was found tragically murdered in Iowa.
Missing person cases should be handled with aggressive media campaigns and thorough search missions; any missing person case is a pressing issue that deserves concern and attention. But public attention has neglected the thousands of missing Native American women on reservations spanning decades. White women’s deaths are afforded more attention and resources than Native American and Alaska Native women and girls.
The lack of resources and attention Native Americans are receiving to combat this epidemic of violence further hinders them from achieving equality. How can this population fight for the respect and resources it deserves when it hasn’t even been assured freedom from murder?
“We know about serial killers who just prey on indigenous women because they know they can get away with it,” Hiebert told me. The epidemic has killed thousands of women and men for generations, and it’s time for the country to respond to the crisis more aggressively — through supportive social and economic policies — to ensure the safety of Native American women.
Nathaniel Hyman is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law. His column,“Social Anxieties,” runs every other Tuesday.