In the early 1600s, a 15-year-old Native American girl was kidnapped from her home in what is now called Virginia. She was raped and forced to marry an English adult, a process in which she had to convert to Christianity and adopt the name Rebecca. Ultimately, she died under mysterious circumstances in England, with some claiming she fell ill. Her family believed that she was murdered. This story of violence, kidnapping, and forced assimilation is the real story of the woman known as Pocahontas. It bears little resemblance to the Disney movie, in which Pocahontas falls in love with a white colonizer and saves him from her “savage” father. But the story is consistent with America’s treatment of Native women. Today, violence against Native American women continues at rates much higher than average and their stories continue to be forgotten, a trend that is born out of a long, American history of settler-colonialism and of erasing Native identities, stories, and cultures. Some Native women today consider Pocahontas one of the first of many “stolen sisters,” some of whose stories and names have been lost to history, while the families and communities of others continue to fight for justice. This persistent violence against Native women is an issue of gender equity and racial justice that deserves more attention from social movements, the media, and policymakers at all levels of government. Despite some recent progress on addressing this crisis, it is imperative that policymakers build on this progress to protect Native women and ensure that both they and their communities have viable pathways to seek justice in response to violence.
Violence against Native American women continues at alarming rates across America. Major gaps in data collection persist; even the limited data that is collected paints a grim picture. Four out of five Native women will experience violence in their lifetimes. Nationwide, violence is the third leading cause of death for Native women, and on some reservations, murder rates for women are ten times higher than they are for other ethnicities.[i] In addition to facing higher murder rates, Native women are also twice as likely to be assaulted or stalked[ii] and face higher rates of kidnapping and trafficking.[iii] Understanding who is perpetrating violence is vital to interrupting these patterns. While they face violence from both Native and non-Native perpetrators, Native women are more likely to be victimized by non-Native perpetrators. The majority of the murders of Native women are committed by Non-Native people on Native lands,[iv] echoing the violence perpetrated against Pocahontas. In fact, Native women today are five times more likely than non-Native women to experience interracial violence in some parts of the U.S.[v] and almost all Native women who report having been abused identify at least one non-Native perpetrator.[vi] Because of the ways in which jurisdiction for prosecution of these crimes is assigned, tribal governments are not given authority over cases in which a perpetrator is not Native, leaving them unable to pursue justice for crimes committed on their lands against their people.
Violence against Native populations is not new. Colonizing forces in North America perpetrated extreme violence against Native people, including forced assimilation and erasure, in addition to physical and military violence. This violence served to support the process of settler-colonialism, in which the colonizing forces want not only to take over and exploit land but also to settle permanently. While tools like genocide were utilized to force mass removal of Native people from land, colonizing forces also used tactics like cultural genocide to achieve the goal of erasing Native identities. For example, into the 20th century, many Native American religious practices were outlawed. Forced education in abusive boarding schools that prohibited Native cultural practices not only exposed Native children to violence, but also forced them to abandon their heritage and assimilate to European culture. Scholar Evelyn Nakano Glenn said: “Redness has been made to disappear, such that contemporary Native Americans have become largely invisible in white consciousness.”[vii] When it comes to violence against Native women, the long-term consequences of this reality are plain.
This trend of erasure continues to play out in both the media and in systems of data collection on violence against Native women. Only about five percent of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) were covered in the national media, and only a quarter were covered by any media at all (including local, regional, or national news).[viii] When these stories are covered, they often include errors like the misgendering of transgender women or explicit references to the victim’s criminal history so that, even when stories are told, they are told in such a way that still contributes to erasure.[ix] Poor data collection similarly presents a significant challenge in understanding the extent to which Native women experience violence and the ability of their communities to seek justice. Often, law enforcement systems don’t track racial data on American Indian and Alaskan Native women because the category doesn’t exist in police systems. As such, racial information is not collected at all. Furthermore, unknown racial status frequently defaults to white, or Native identities are erroneously conflated with Latinx or South Asian identities.
The statistics on federal recognition of tribes and tribal identities are important as well. A study carried out by the Urban Indian Health Initiative notes: “if a woman or girl was killed during the time their tribe was terminated, her citizenship may have never been restored when her nation was re-recognized, and she may have been falsely classified as white – or not racially classified at all – in documentation regarding her case.”[x] This study, which looked specifically at Native women living in urban areas, found that three out of four cases of MMIW don’t list a tribal affiliation. What’s more, they identified over 150 cases that don’t exist in law enforcement records at all and discovered that out of 5,712 MMIW cases nationwide, only 116 were logged in the Department of Justice’s national database.[xi] Both in the media and law enforcement records, violence against Native women is, at best, only partially understood and is often ignored entirely.
Complicated relationships between federal, state, local, and tribal governments further contribute to the failure to properly address cases of violence against Native Women. For example, federal law gives tribal governments jurisdiction only in cases that involve both a Native victim and a Native perpetrator. Even when this condition is met, serious crimes are also sent automatically to the federal government, which often declines to prosecute these cases.[xii] Recent expansions of the Violence Against Women Act allows recognized tribes to prosecute non-Native perpetrators of domestic violence on tribal land, but even this leaves gaps.[xiii] The failure to fully recognize Native sovereignty over these issues has significant consequences when most violence against Native women is carried out by a non-Native perpetrator. One attorney who focuses on Native issues said: “Predators may target Native women and girls precisely because they are perceived as marginalized and outside the protection of the American legal system.”[xiv]
Recent legislation signed by President Trump seeks to improve the data collection and reporting on cases of violence against Native women, but there is still room for further improvement. Comprehensive research and data collection overseen by Native researchers needs to be supported in order to get a full picture of the MMIW crisis. Data needs to be collected at state and city levels as well, and explicit protocols for data sharing between different levels of government need to be laid out, with Native communities themselves in control of the process. Tribal nations must be given room to advocate for their citizens like other sovereign nations, including notification, access to data, and involvement in prosecution. Native communities, many of whom continue to experience the long-term consequences of this violence, need to be fully engaged in creating these systems. Violence against Native women is rooted in a long history of colonialism and erasure, and efforts to address the issue need to confront this history.
[ii] “MMIW: A Primer on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.” City of Portland, OR., n.d.
[iii] Abinanti, Abby and Blythe George. “To’ Kee Skuy’ Soo Ney-Wo-Chek.’” Sovereign Bodies Institute, n.d. https://www.sovereign-bodies.org/tokeeskuysooney-wo-chek.
[vi] Gardner, Betsy. “They Disappear ‘Not Once, but Three Times: In Life, In the Media, and In the Data.’” Data-Smart City Solutions. https://datasmart.ash.harvard.edu/news/article/they-disappear-not-once-three-times-life-media-and-data.
[vii] Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “Settler Colonialism as Structure: A Framework for Comparative Studies of U.S. Race and Gender Formation,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity (2015):54-74.
[viii] “Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women & Girls.” Urban Indian Health Institute. https://www.uihi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Missing-and-Murdered-Indigenous-Women-and-Girls-Report.pdf
[xi] “Inadequate Data on Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.” National Indian Council on Aging. https://www.nicoa.org/inadequate-data-on-missing-murdered-indigenous-women-and-girls/
[xiii] “Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction: FAQs.” National Congress of American Indians. https://www.ncai.org/tribal-vawa/sdvcj-overview/faqs