Introduction to the crisis?
According to the National Institute of Justice, 4 in 5 Indigenous women have reported experiencing violence. Murder is one of the leading causes of death for Indigenous women, as they are 10 times more likely to be killed than other women in the United States. Although research shows that Indigenous women experience violence at exponential rates, government data on missing and murdered Indigenous women is shockingly low. In 2016 the National Crime Information Center reported over 5,000 cases of missing Indigenous women but the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) only reported 116. Although this discrepancy is not a new phenomenon, Congress has started to take action, passing both Savanna’s Act, Public Law No. 116-165, and the Not Invisible Act, Public Law No 116-166, to improve data collection and reporting. However, a 2021 GAO report found that the Department of Interior (“DOI”) and DOJ are still struggling to gather comprehensive data due to missed implementation deadlines, and ineffective databases for tracking missing person cases.
Savanna’s Act is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old pregnant Indigenous woman from the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota. Savanna’s neighbors lured Savanna to their apartment where they murdered her and kidnapped her baby. Savanna’s Act requires the DOJ to educate other law enforcement agencies on how to record tribal information on the various missing person databases, educate the public on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (“NamUs”), conduct tribal outreach, generate guidelines, and report statistics for cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women. The Not Invisible Act requires a joint commission between the DOI and DOJ to make recommendations on how to reduce violence against Indigenous peoples. Both DOI and DOJ missed deadlines to implement many of the statutory provisions from both Acts.
How the DOJ and DOI can improve their response to the crisis:
The GAO report confirmed that we do not have comprehensive data of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S. Part of the problem is that too many databases used to track this information. For example, two federal criminal databases, the National Crime Information Center (“NCIC”) and NamUs house similar information but cannot be used simultaneously to piece together missing information. NCIC is widely used by government agencies, but not all Tribes have access to it and NCIC does not have an option for tribal affiliation. While NamUs is accessible to Tribes, it is not as widely used among federal and state agencies as NCIC. Therefore, it is missing information from that database. NamUs also allows for agencies to enter tribal affiliation, but that information is only as reliable as the person entering it and DOJ has acknowledged that not all Indigenous people are correctly identified.
Savanna’s Act recognized the issues with these federal databases and tried to address it by having DOJ conduct educational outreach to both the public and the Tribes about NamUs. The GAO report recommends the Attorney General develop actionable plans that include milestone dates, to implement the educational outreach to the public and tribes. As of October 2022, DOJ has yet to provide GAO with their outreach implementation plans. Since DOJ acknowledged that not all Indigenous people are correctly identified, DOJ should also educate its law enforcement officers on how to properly recognize and enter the data of Indigenous people.
The Not Invisible Act requires a Joint Commission on Reducing Violent Crime Against Indians between the Secretary of Interior and the Attorney General. The Act requires the Commission to submit recommendations to DOJ, DOI, and Congress. In 2019, the President established Operation Lady Justice as a joint task force between DOI and DOJ to develop protocols for handling Indigenous missing person cases, reviewing cold cases, and analyzing data. Unfortunately, Operation Lady Justice expired in 2021, but GAO recommended DOJ develop a plan to continue analyzing this data despite the Operation’s expiration. Since data analysis was done in Operation Lady Justice, it would be more efficient for DOJ to continue data analysis under the new joint Commission rather than create a new initiative.
To properly address the crisis, federal agencies need to understand the systemic racism Indigenous communities face. GAO interviewed Tribal members who reported that victims’ families felt a sense of dismissiveness and indifference from federal law enforcement officers when reporting a missing family member. Because of these interactions, victims’ families felt that federal law enforcement officers were not adequately investigating their family members’ disappearances due to bias against Indigenous communities. Confronting systemic racism would allow for better data collection, as GAO also found that perceptions of lack of concern from law enforcement can lead to underreporting by victims’ families. Despite this, GAO did not offer recommendations for how DOJ and DOI should confront bias within their own organizations. DOJ and DOI should develop a plan to address bias against Indigenous people within their own agencies. They should collaborate with Tribes and Native American organizations to develop bias training. This would not only produce effective training but also improve relationships. The bias training would help federal law enforcement better respond and investigate Indigenous cases.
Bias against missing Indigenous people was highlighted in 2021 with the case of Gabby Petito. Gabby was a white non-Indigenous young woman who went missing in Wyoming, where over 700 Indigenous people have been reported missing in the last ten years. The families of these missing individuals wondered why their loved ones did not get the attention from law enforcement that Gabby’s case attracted. Along with public educational outreach for NamUs, the DOJ and DOI should also develop educational outreach programs to help the public understand the extent of the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis. Implementing a public outreach campaign could also foster trust with victims’ families and reduce underreporting, since it will show that federal government is taking their cases as seriously as non-Indigenous cases.
Without addressing the systemic racism and bias against Indigenous people, the federal government is unlikely to succeed in obtaining comprehensive data on missing and murdered Indigenous women. As noted earlier in GAO’s interviews with Tribal members, bias can affect the reporting and investigation of Indigenous missing person cases. To address this issue, DOJ and DOI should develop bias training and develop a campaign to educate the public about the crisis. Adding bias and a public outreach campaign to GAO’s recommendation would likely lead to better data collection. Better data collection will allow us to one day understand the scope of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S.