By Deepti Govind & Aara Ramesh
At Biometrica, we’ve repeatedly written about an epidemic that many in the country have been quietly dealing with: of missing and murdered Indigenous persons. There is no doubt that it is a public safety epidemic demanding urgent action, which President Joe Biden’s administration acknowledged through an executive order on Monday, Nov. 15. November also happens to be the designated Native American Heritage month. Before we examine Biden’s executive order, though, we take a look at several statistics from various organizations that show similar alarming trends about this crisis.
For instance, homicide was the sixth leading cause of death in 2018 for Native women aged 1-44 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As with crimes across the general population, it is women and children who are more often the targets of crime. But when it comes to Indigenous persons, homicide was the third leading cause of death even for Native men, per CDC. Even so, in some tribal areas, the murder rate of Indigenous women is, shockingly, 10 times higher than the national average.
Other estimates say that one in every three Native women are raped during their lifetime. What compounds this particular aspect is data from the Department of Justice (DOJ) itself, which shows that a whopping 65% of rape cases reported on tribal lands were not prosecuted (per 2011 numbers). The Association of Indian Affairs found that American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.5 times as likely to experience violent crimes and twice as likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes compared to all other races.
According to statistics from the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ), more than two in five American Indian and Alaska Native female victims reported being physically injured, and almost half reported needing services, including medical care and legal services, which more than a third (38%) were unable to access. In the U.S. and Canada, an average of 40% of the women who were victims of sex trafficking identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native.
The National Crime Information Center says that in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the DOJ’s federal missing persons database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases, a report published in 2017 by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) says.
When it comes to states, in 2019 the UIHI said Washington is the second in the U.S. in terms of the number of cases of missing Indigenous women, with Seattle itself ranked the top city for such crimes nationwide. Meanwhile, in Wyoming — the state missing and murdered lifestyle vlogger Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito was last reported to have been in — at least 710 Indigenous people vanished between 2011 and 2020. Over half of those 710 people were women, according to Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force.
The Tribal Nations Summit & The Executive Order
“Generations of Native Americans have experienced violence or mourned a missing or murdered family member or loved one, and the lasting impacts of such tragedies are felt throughout the country. Native Americans face unacceptably high levels of violence, and are victims of violent crime at a rate much higher than the national average. Native American women, in particular, are disproportionately the victims of sexual and gender-based violence, including intimate partner homicide … And the vast majority of Native American survivors report being victimized by a non-Native American individual,” state opening remarks of Biden’s executive order.
Indeed, over eight in 10 Native Peoples are likely to experience sexual violence or assault during their lifetime. Native women and girls are also more likely to be trafficked than other segments of the population. Over four in five Native women report having experienced some form of violence during their lifetime.
On Monday, during the first White House Tribal Nations Summit to be held since 2016, Biden signed a legislation titled: “Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People.” Leaders from more than 570 tribes in the U.S. were expected to join the two-day event, with nearly three dozen scheduled to address the gathering. During his remarks on day one of the summit, Biden also announced the launch of five new initiatives for Indigenous persons:
- The first involves 17 departments and agencies protecting Tribal treaty rights and the work of the federal government
- The second aims at increasing Tribal participation in the management and stewardship of federal lands
- The third will be to work with the Tribes to comprehensively incorporate Tribal ecological knowledge into the federal government’s scientific approach, helping fight climate change
- The fourth involves taking action to protect the Greater Chaco Landscape in Northwest New Mexico from future oil and gas drilling and leasing. The Biden administration announced plans to pursue a 20-year ban on oil and gas drilling in Chaco Canyon, an ancient Native American heritage site in northwestern New Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage site
- And the fifth is the legislation we mentioned above, which is aimed at addressing the crisis of violence against Native Americans
“Today, I’m directing federal officials to work with Tribal Nations on a strategy to improve public safety and advance justice. This builds on the work we did together in reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, when we granted authority to try to exercise jurisdiction over non-Indian offenders who commit violence on Tribal lands. We’re going to reauthorize that again. We’re going to expand the jurisdiction to include other offenses like sex trafficking, sexual assault, and child abuse. These efforts — again, to use the word my dad would use much — are a matter of dignity. That’s the foundation of our nation-to-nation partnership. That’s what this summit is all about,” Biden added.
Under the order, the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will have 240 days to create a strategy to improve public safety for Native Americans, USA Today reported. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will be tasked with creating a plan for prevention and survivor support initiatives.
The strategy will:
- Set out a plan to address unsolved cases involving Native Americans
- Provide for coordination among the DOJ, the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the DHS in their efforts to end human trafficking
- Seek to strengthen and expand Native American participation in the Amber Alert in Indian Country initiative
- Build on and enhance national training programs for Federal agents and prosecutors, including those related to trauma-informed and victim-centered interview and investigation techniques
- Include protocols for effective, consistent, and culturally and linguistically appropriate communication with families of victims and their advocates, including through the creation of a designated position within the DOJ assigned the function of serving as the outreach services liaison for criminal cases where the Federal Government has jurisdiction
Biden recently became the first president to issue a proclamation designating Oct. 11 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, giving a boost to longstanding efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Native peoples, Associated Press reported.
Other steps were announced in conjunction with Biden’s executive order and the Tribal Nations summit. On Monday, the DOJ’s Office for Victims of Crime said it awarded nearly $104 million to help crime victims in Indian Country. Separately, the DOJ also said it was awarding 137 grants to 85 American Indian and Alaska Native communities, for a total of $73 million, to improve public safety and serve crime victims. As part of the agreement to protect Tribal treaty rights, the administration announced a partnership with Oklahoma State University to compile, digitize, and index Tribal treaties, with a beta version of the database to be unveiled on Monday, CNN said in a report.
Investigations into violence against Native peoples have been underfunded for decades, with murders and missing persons cases often unsolved and unaddressed, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, said per a Reuters report. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which runs law enforcement on Indian lands, is part of the U.S. DOI. In April, Haaland announced a unit within her department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs aimed at tackling the crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans, per the CNN report.
“The contributions that Indigenous peoples have made throughout history — in public service, entrepreneurship, scholarship, the arts, and countless other fields — are integral to our Nation, our culture, and our society,” Biden said in his Indigenous Peoples’ Day proclamation.
You can read some of Biometrica’s previous pieces on this epidemic here: