Note on Terminology: Across North America, different indigenous groups identify with different terms. A number of tribes in the United States identify as American Indian or indigenous while some in Canada identify instead as First Nation. There is no single term encompassing the myriad of people who fall under the umbrella. However, because this article will address an issue which affects various North American Tribes, the term “indigenous” will be used with the exception of direct quotes. Readers who wish to learn more about this issue are encouraged to learn more about the specific tribes in the United States, in Canada, and across the world.  

Note on Content: This article and the links provided refer to graphic violence against women. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call 1-800-799-SAFE(7233) in the United States or 1-844-413-6649 in Canada.

Red, the Only Color Spirits See

To honor the spirits of stolen sisters, red— which according to various tribes is the only color spirits see— is the color used in Canada and in the United States to draw attention to Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW). Despite allies working to draw attention to this crisis across North America, the number of MMIW continues to rise, yet the exact figures are still unknown. This seeming contradiction is a result of a crisis of data, police brutality, and genocide. The rising number of MMIW is also a result of issues of jurisdiction and sovereignty between the tribes and their colonizers.

Data Crisis

In 2014, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) released a report which determined that there were 1,017 homicides of indigenous women between 1980 and 2012, which is a rate of about 2.6 deaths per month with another 164 women considered missing. In the United States, a survey completed in 2016 by the National Institute of Justice found that more than “four in five American-Indian and Alaska-Native women (84.3 percent) have experienced violence in their lifetime; 56.1 percent have been victims of sexual violence; 55.5 percent have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner; 48.8 percent have experienced stalking; and 66.4 percent have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner.”

Yet despite such disturbing numbers, it is likely the actual number of MMIW is even higher. Canada’s Minister of the Status of Women, The Honorable Patty Hajdu, estimates that 4,000 homicides is a more realistic estimate for the 32 year period given the history of police underreporting homicides and failing to investigate suspicious deaths. Similarly, lack of reporting within and between various agencies in the United States indicates that the number of MMIW is likely much higher than currently reported. Accurate numbers are nearly impossible to find. As an example, the CBC reported that there were at least 140 deaths that were “homicides, suspicious deaths and deaths in police custody or while in the care of the child welfare system, between 2016 and 2019.” Yet in the same article but through a second set of figures, the CBC revealed numbers in Canada that indicate 131 cases between 2016 and 2019 involved homicide, death in custody, and suspicious death. “This is a crisis that has gone on for far too long,” says U.S. Representative and recently nominated Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “Part of the problem is that this has been a silent crisis. No one is keeping track. It’s not covered in mainstream media and data is lacking everywhere. Sometimes the record of that missing indigenous woman or person isn’t documented, leaving questions unanswered for sometimes decades, leading to gaps in information, missing person cases unsolved and perpetrators roaming the streets.” There cannot be a true reckoning with the scope of the crisis until accurate information is available across North America. Accurate numbers will also bring awareness to the gravity of  police brutality against indigenous women and further prove that indigenous people are victims of genocide.

Police Brutality and Genocide

In 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report called “Those Who Take Us Away,” which is the literal translation of the word for police in Carrier, the language of many indigenous communities in northern British Columbia. The report analyzed RCMP violations against indigenous women. Across ten towns in northern BC, some of the violations discovered by HRW include RCMP pepper-spraying and tasering young indigenous girls, a police dog attacking a 12-year old girl, an officer punching a 17-year old girl despite having been called to help her, male officers strip-searching women, and police officers injuring women due to excessive force used during arrest (see page 7-8 of the same report). The report also documents stories of women raped or sexually assaulted by RCMP. One woman described how in July 2012, members of the RCMP took her outside of town, raped her, and threatened to kill her if she told anyone (see page 8 of the same report). In a separate 2015 incident, a constable took home an intoxicated indigenous woman from jail in order to “pursue a personal relationship”; his punishment was merely a reprimand and loss of seven days of pay. RCMP has implemented policies to address police brutality against indigenous women focused on reconciliation, but violence from RCMP officers against indigenous people and women continues in Canada. Even outside the RCMP, structural inequity and racial and gender biases continue to result in the indigenous women and girls being killed and going missing. Shockingly, 1 in 4 indigenous people in Canada live in poverty. The rate is virtually the same in the United States.

Following the HRW report in 2013, Canada conducted a National Inquiry into the MMIW crisis, publishing its findings and recommendations in 2016. The National Inquiry determined, among other findings, that Canada has fulfilled the elements of actus reus of genocide through a myriad of systemic mistreatments including forced relocation, removal of children, and denial of status and membership for First Nations. At a ceremony announcing the Inquiry’s findings, Chief Commissioner Marion Buller said, “The significant, persistent and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered, human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses — perpetuated historically and maintained today by the Canadian state, designed to displace Indigenous Peoples from their lands, social structures and governance and to eradicate their existence as Nations, communities, families and individuals — is the cause of the disappearances, murders and violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls, 2SLGBTQQIA people, and this is genocide.” The United States has not created a similar report. Independent agencies in the United States have created their own reports similar to the National Inquiry with similar findings.

Jurisdiction and Sovereignty

Police brutality against indigenous women is also an issue in the United States, where tribal courts’ lack of jurisdiction over “non-Indians” hinders justice for indigenous women. The Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978) held that “Indian tribal courts do not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try and to punish non-Indians, and hence may not assume such jurisdiction unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress.” Thus, when an indigenous woman is assaulted or even murdered by a “non-Indian,” she cannot seek justice in her own tribal court. The Violence Against Women Re-Authorization Act of 2013 partially changed this issue by providing federally recognized tribes meeting certain conditions with special jurisdiction over non-Indian offenders involved in domestic violence cases. Yet, even as jurisdiction is updated, there are still not enough Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officers to effectively serve rural, tribal communities. Additionally, indigenous women are still unlikely to trust police officers, regardless of jurisdiction.

Indigenous people in Canada are currently working to assert their sovereignty, and those in the United States are attempting to further define their sovereignty. Until the tribes are able to fully function as true sovereign entities, violence against indigenous women will likely continue, especially in cases in which the perpetrator of violence is from outside the tribe, as exemplified in transient work communities.

The Future for MMIW

In the United States and Canada, the movement to bring awareness to MMIW continues to grow. Following the National Inquiry in Canada, the government passed down a mandate to gather more accurate data to which the government could respond, though there are questions as to whether or not these mandates have been effective. Ontario has also started a program called Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin (“I am a kind man”) which encourages indigenous men to break out of the patriarchy and to contribute to the end of violence against women.

In the United States, various acts are moving through the legislative process, including Savanna’s Act —which was named in honor of the horrific slaying of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Nation, and was the first bill in United States history to be introduced by four enrolled members of federally recognized tribes, the SURVIVE Act, Studying the Missing and Murdered Indian Crisis Act of 2019, The Native Youth & Tribal Officer Protection Act and the Not Invisible Act of 2019

For indigenous people and allies alike, it is important to bring this issue to light so no more indigenous women are stolen in silence. The history of colonization has attempted to eradicate indigenous culture in North America. The colonizers stole children, dispossessed indigenous people from their land, and languages were driven to or nearly to extinction. Yet indigenous people have survived. It is time for the colonizers to aid, not hinder, that survival. The National Inquiry in Canada was an excellent first step. Now, from both Canada and the United States, we await action.

As a final note, readers should be aware that some tribes are either not recognized by the local government or were driven to extinction due to colonization. Readers wishing to learn more about indigenous people and about the MMIW movement should conduct localized research (for example, here is more information about the indigenous people in the Washington, DC area).

Author Biography: Danielle Barnes-Smith is a senior moderator for the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) at The George Washington University Law School. She is a JD candidate at The George Washington Law School and has a degree of Master Public Administration from the University of Montana.