If you were to arrive in the north-east Oklahoma town of Grove today, you would be hard pressed to enter a convenience store, petrol station, church or community centre without seeing a flyer for the missing Aubrey Dameron. The 25-year-old disappeared from home over a year ago now, and as a member of the Cherokee Nation, she is just another grim statistic which reveals the horrific reality of the threat facing indigenous women today.
Approximately 4000 indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in the last 30 years in Canada alone– that works out to three a week. In the USA the story is no brighter with FBI databases reporting that in 2019 nearly 5,600 native American women were reported missing. The Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute puts this number even higher, at 5,712. 2% of all the women identified were not even registered in federal databases revealing the extent of social exclusion these women are facing. Indeed, the life of an indigenous woman in North America is vastly different to the experiences of other races. In Canada, they are 12 times more likely to be kidnapped or killed while in the USA, 84% experience violence in their lifetime and a further 67% are concerned for their own safety.
Of course, this is not exactly ‘news’. Since the 1600’s indigenous women faced rape and violence at disturbing rates by white male colonisers who viewed them as ‘savages’ and ‘less than human’; a racist mindset which still remains to this day. 41% of Native American women have been injured from physical violence from intimate partners, been victims of stalking or been a victim of sexual assault. This ‘savage’ idea is also mirrored in the incarceration rates of Native Americans with men being 4 times more likely to be imprisoned than white men and women being 6 times more likely than their white counterparts.
In reality, indigenous women are incredibly vulnerable in comparison to other racial groups. The extreme ignorance towards them is also shown in their death records with trends of coroners saying ‘other’ in answer to their race and ‘unknown’ to their cause of death. Or, worse still, indigenous women being completely mislabelled as Hispanic or Asian allowing more and more women to slip through the cracks in statistics meaning the numbers previously quoted are very likely to be a large under-estimation of the true scale of the problem.
Another way indigenous people are left unprotected is simply due to where they live, often residing on Tribal lands in remote settings which fall between the jurisdictions of police departments meaning the crimes committed here are un-investigated and almost justified by a complete lack of respect for their culture. The Merriam Report of 1928 found that housing and health conditions on Native American reservations were awful with high rates of alcoholism and suicide and people being forced to live practically in slums. This report forced the federal government to step in and implement schools and hospital outreach, however, as of 2013, 7.5% of Native American households still lacked basic sanitation or safe drinking water. That’s almost 100 years and yet Native American’s are still being treated as second-class citizens. Time and time again the actions of one Presidential administration have been un-done by the next so no real progress has been sustained.
Furthermore, these lands are often plagued by transient workers working on oil pipelines or building roads who then build temporary ‘man camps’ which are notorious for sexual assault and sex trafficking of indigenous women and girls. Police departments simply cannot stretch to cover these vast areas especially with hundreds of unknown men passing through every week allowing their crimes to go unpunished. A growing number of reports, studies and congressional hearings now support this link between ‘man camps’ and assault, especially when related to pipeline work. The most notable areas being the Tar Sands region of Alberta, Canada as well as North-Dakota and Eastern Montana in the Bakken oil fields. Indeed, Canada’s federal government released its MMIWG (murdered and missing indigenous women) report identifying the state-induced genocide and pinpointing the ‘man camps’ as “hot-beds of violence”. However, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has recently allocated billions of dollars to a mass pipeline expansion project; ignoring the pleas for something to be changed to support and protect these women.
By indigenous people choosing to live among their own culture, not even on their original lands but on lands federal governments forced them on, they are not being given the same protection that the rest of the country receives. They are being punished for not assimilating with the white ideal. This can be seen very clearly in the 1950’s when Congress ordered Native Americans to be cut off from federal responsibility unless they are willing to assimilate into white society. Embracing their own culture and traditions has become increasingly punished, and in many cases, criminalised.
This lack of support from federal governments is not new to the struggle. In Canada, the Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence against Indigenous Women reviewed 58 reports covering two decades of research and identified that of the 700 recommendations that have been made to the government only a handful have actually been implemented. Oppressed people are heard much louder when they are given a voice in mainstream media, but there are very few indigenous people working in these largely white corporations meaning they simply cannot control the narrative. Politicians follow the common opinion in order to be elected or re-elected but the public discussion of indigenous oppression is next to non-existent. Thus, time and time again, investment into protecting these women and stopping the oppression faced by indigenous people have been stalled and re-allocated to ‘more important’ problems.
One of the most under-funded areas is support for women with addiction and other mental health issues. Many of the girls who go missing initially run away from home either due to an unhappy home life or to escape the foster system and many go on to develop mental disorders including addiction as a way of coping with living on the streets. This restricts their ability to one day return home. This was the case for Ms Sohappy who found her family’s missing persons flyers in a local shop and decided to enrol herself in a Tribal substance-abuse clinic only to be told there would be a 2 week long waiting list. “I kind of stopped trying” Ms Sohappy said. Her drinking and drug dependence only worsened until she eventually called a suicide hotline who managed to help her enrol on a treatment programme in Portland.
There is chronic under-funding within these mental health services and to further the problem, many women who go missing are found as official adults who often do not have Medicaid or even a bank account and, being over the age of 18, are not entitled to any form of check-up by the state despite the traumas they almost certainly have endured. There is also then cases of failed screening of vulnerable women with reports of counsellors failing to screen located Navajo women and girls for sex trafficking. Furthermore, the attention to vast rural tribal lands leaves little resources for the protection of indigenous women in urban cities which have higher violent crime rates regardless.
There are too many cracks for vulnerable women to fall through due to the systemic ignorance of indigenous culture as well as simply racist and misogynistic views of these women. They do not have the same level of protection and security that other women are afforded and the lack of effort of federal governments to rectify this gives little hope to the future. Too many women and girls are still lost from home and many will never see their families again. This is fast becoming a disturbing norm in North American society. This genocide must end for the sake of so many young girls whose odds are currently against them.
Words by Lisa Gallacher
Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:
- Noa Kleinman: Amnesty International-https://www.amnesty.org.uk/blogs/country-specialists/no-more-stolen-sisters-justice-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women?utm_source=google&utm_medium=grant&utm_campaign=BRD_AWA_GEN_dynamic-search-ads&utm_content=.
- Brandi Morin: The Guardian- https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/07/canada-indigenous-women-and-girls-missing.
- Carolyn Smith-Morris: Cultural Survival-https://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/addressing-epidemic-missing-murdered-indigenous-women-and-girls.
- Leyland Cecco: The Guardian- https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/31/canada-missing-indigenous-women-cultural-genocide-government-report.
- Jack Healy: New York Times- https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/25/us/native-women-girls-missing.html.
- Nick Martin: The New Republic- https://newrepublic.com/article/155367/connection-pipelines-sexual-violence.
- MMIWG Final Report- https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/.
- Kurtis Lee: LA Times- https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-01-31/murdered-missing-native-american-women.
- Jane Dalton: The Independent- https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/canada-genocide-murdered-missing-women-girls-indigenous-inquiry-report-a8939646.html.
- Native Women’s Wilderness- https://www.nativewomenswilderness.org/mmiw.