While sensationalized cases of missing and endangered women have gone viral over the past several years, the most recent case being that of Gabby Petito, cases involving Indigenous women who have gone missing or are believed to be in danger under similar circumstances have not been given adequate attention. Just a few of these women are Mary Ellen Johnson from Tulalip, Washington who was last heard from while she was on the Tulalip Reservation on November 24, 2020; Courtney Corrinna Holden from Spokane, Washington who has been classified as Endangered Missing as of July 1, 2018; and Ruthie Fawn Kindness who was last seen in Parkland, Washington on February 7, 2011. These women all disappeared under suspicious circumstances, yet the alarm was not sounded for them as we hear for non-Indigenous peoples. These are just three out of hundreds of Indigenous women who are missing and endangered across the United States as a whole.
While the public is informed about most missing adults through various news sources, Silver Alerts, and social media, many missing Indigenous peoples have been overlooked and left out of the public eye—especially Indigenous women.
These troubling numbers have led Washington state legislators to propose a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Alert System similar to mainstream Amber Alert and Silver Alert systems.
“The unheard screams of missing and murdered people will be heard across Washington state with the implementation of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) Alert System,” Washington State Representative Debra Lekanoff reported as the onset of the new alert system was proposed to the Washington state legislature in early January 2022.
Since the Silver Alert has become a much-relied-upon system to identify missing vulnerable people nationwide, states can rely on the MMIW alert system to assist Native peoples in spreading awareness for those missing from their vulnerable communities.
An alert to find missing Indigenous women
Despite their cases having poor coverage and mostly going cold with few leads, as of April 2021, about 1,500 Indigenous peoples were listed in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) as missing. Indigenous women in particular are reported missing and are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average. Even more shocking, from 1999 to 2019, murder was the third leading cause of death among Indigenous women, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
But this doesn’t appear be primarily a problem with Indigenous populations taking care of their own in their reservations. Due to about 60 percent of the Native American population living in urban areas away from reservations, where are little to no ties to Native communities or tribal law enforcement, many in this ethnic group rely on local law enforcement of major cities to handle their cases. In these environments, negative stereotypes surrounding Indigenous women can lead to forces in urban areas devaluing the cases of missing Indigenous women and girls, hindering the time-sensitive search process. According to Native Hope, an organization that seeks to address injustice toward Native Americans, “Urban Indians receive less than adequate assistance when a loved one goes missing. America has written a stereotypical narrative for its First People: ‘They are lazy, drug addicts, and alcoholics who rely on the government to survive.’”
Raising women's voices, growing awareness
Despite corruption and racism, Indigenous women are leading calls for change to assist in combating gender-based violence against the vulnerable in their communities. “We refuse to let our people die in silence,” says Abigail Echo-Hawk, one of 21 members on the Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force formed in 2021.
On the Federal level, in 2021, the Bureau of Indian Affairs of Justice Services formed a Missing & Murdered Unit to assist police departments working cases in Tribal communities and on reservations throughout the United States, and President Biden formed Operation Lady Justice, a presidential task force committed to “improving public safety and criminal justice for Native Americans and addressing the issues of missing or murdered Indigenous people.” While these policies are the beginning of bringing the crisis of missing and endangered Indigenous women to the forefront of America’s public eye, Native Americans know there is still much more to do to keep their families and neighbors safe.
Which is where Washington state legislators hope to make a difference with dedicated awareness.
“The rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Washington is a crisis,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said this month. “This effective tool will help quickly and safely locate missing Indigenous women and people.”
One hopes that a cohesive effort within states will bring the country’s women and girls home alive. And for those not brought home safe, one hopes their lives lost too soon would be made visible, and that Americans everywhere will know their names and stories.