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The Cyclical Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

The headlines will mourn Selena Not Afraid until another case comes along. Then what?

Sarah Morris/Getty Images

On Monday, the body of 16-year-old Crow Tribe citizen Selena Not Afraid was found a mile from the Montana rest stop where she was last seen on New Year’s Day. Before then, Not Afraid, who friends and family called “Sal,” was like any other kid from Hardin High. But when she disappeared, she became something else, too: a name attached to a statistic. Her disappearance and death, along with that of 18-year-old Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, who was found dead in August, led to a write-up from The New York Times, headlined: “Rural Montana Had Already Lost Too Many Native Women. Then Selena Disappeared.” The coverage is something—a small recognition in a sea of loss. “[F]amilies like Selena’s are taking an urgent public stand to pressure politicians and law enforcement to provide more aggressive responses to these cases,” the Times wrote. “They are raising alarms through social media and even bracing themselves against Montana blizzards to keep their loved ones from being forgotten.”

But there will be other pieces like it, more names to learn as the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women drags on. Another Native woman killed, another name, another headline, and so on goes the cycle.

Here’s a number embedded in my brain through simple repetition: In 2017, 5,646 Native women were reported missing in the United States. Here’s another, specific to Montana, where Selena and Kaysera called home: Native citizens are 6.7 percent of the population, yet between 2016 and 2018, they made up 26 percent of the state’s missing persons cases.

After you’ve read enough about it, you realize that the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women’s crisis is about patterns and a refusal to do what’s necessary to stop them. Patterns of violent men and extractive industries breezing through land they do not own to take lives that do not belong to them. Patterns of tribal sovereignty being undermined and jurisdictional borders being crossed. Patterns of police dismissing concerned mothers and fathers and aunties and grandparents with the excuse that “runaways always come back.” Patterns of coroners dodging paperwork and scrawling “other” next to the line titled “Race” and “accidental death” next to “C.O.D.” Patterns of government officials, top to bottom, ignoring practical, sovereignty-first reforms and instead hoarding the kind of power that keeps the crisis alive.

There have been steps made to put an end to the violence. States have enacted task forces and financed studies and created six-figure salaries for investigative experts to help them fill the gaps. Even from the most unlikely of places, a baseline acknowledgment that something awful is happening has arrived. Those in Indian Country seemed to be torn when President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr announced a plan to combat the MMIW crisis in December. On the one hand, here was the president actually stepping forward and addressing the crisis head-on; on the other, the plan, a meager offering from a violent administration, still lacked both the necessary consultation requirements, funding levels, and the legal changes to give tribal nations the authority to arrest and detain those charged with violent crimes. But like the Times story on Selena and Kaysera, it was something, where before there was nothing.

What should be clear by now is that a single solution to MMIW will not appear at the snap of any one person’s fingers—that, in fact, there is no single solution. On the part of the colonizing nation responsible for much of the violence, solving the MMIW crisis requires a substantial change in how American politicians and their constituencies understand tribal nations and their right to govern their land. It also demands a great number of systemic updates: the Oliphant fix, which would allow tribes to prosecute noncitizens; the dissolution of pipeline projects and their accompanying worker camps that are a source of danger to Native women; adequate public service funding for tribes that require it (or are owed it through their treaties) to strengthen the struggling economies that often accompany these stories; and an admission by Congress—like the one offered by Canada—that this is, in large part, a crisis enabled by the state.

Addressing the crisis in these ways, though, would require mass action from the public to force its elected representatives to enact these changes. And doing that would require a substantial amount of the American public to not just know what the hell MMIW is but to get up in arms about its causes and demand change in a way that supports the organizing being done by Native citizens and places the tribes in charge of their land.

Statistics don’t move people, not like they need to be moved. There have already been so many stories of lost Native women and girls in national publications and television segments. In the case of MMIW, both the data and the stories are already so staggering, so disproportionately weighted against women in Indian Country, that mass outrage should have long arrived by now.

The families, the tribal nation citizens, their governments, the grassroots activists and legal workers, the people scouring the fields for their loved ones—they have already done the hard work for the rest of the country. Through a numbing number of vigils and marches and protests, they have used social media and the press to raise awareness on an issue that the government was all too happy to let simmer just below the lid. They forced action where once there was only silence. But for years now, we have been stuck on acknowledgment. I’m tired of listening to elected officials admit there is a problem over and over, only for their congressional hearings to devolve into finger-wagging and finger-pointing, while the witnesses to these horrific acts of violence sit quietly to the side.

Knowing the names of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women isn’t enough. America is better poised than it’s ever been to address these issues structurally. We know the urgency of the crisis, we know there are ways forward, and we know the people and systems standing in the way.