At least 506 indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been killed in 71 American cities — including more than 330 since 2010 — the Urban Indian Health Institute has found. A staggering 95 percent of these cases were never covered by national or international media, UIHI revealed Wednesday in its new report.
The oldest of the victims was 83. The youngest, an infant. Nearly 100 cases were tied to domestic violence, sexual assault or police brutality. The circumstances surrounding many of the other deaths and disappearances remain unknown.
These data were collected from cities that were known to have Native populations in 29 states. Some two-thirds of the cases that UIHI managed to find were from the last decade, although the oldest case dated back to 1943.
The 500-plus number likely represents a gross undercount, the Seattle-based tribal epidemiology center noted. The limited available information at various law enforcement agencies, and in some cases, the complete lack of it, speaks volumes about the racist attitudes surrounding indigenous issues in America, UIHI said.
“Our women and our children, our girls, they hold such value within our communities,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, the chief research officer at the Seattle Indian Health Board and the director of UIHI. “For us to let their deaths to just go unnoticed — for people not to know that we have missing women in our communities, for their voices not to be heard — to me was unacceptable.”
UIHI faced significant challenges over the past year while trying to gather information. Almost half of municipal police departments either failed to respond within the set time limit or failed to respond at all, the report said, and 15 percent cited an inability to search for American Indian, Native American or Alaska Native people in their data systems. Searching news reports, social media, missing persons databases and other sources, UIHI added up more than 150 cases, dubbed “the invisible 153,” that did not even exist in police records.
“For too long, data has been about other people telling Native people who we are.”
Annita Lucchesi, a cartographer and doctoral intern at UIHI, worked with the center to count the missing and murdered indigenous women in the 71 selected cities. It’s an issue close to Lucchesi’s heart: Ashley Loring Heavyrunner, one of her former students from Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana, has been missing for more than a year. Heavyrunner vanished from Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation on June 7, 2017, at age 20.
“For too long, data has been about other people telling Native people who we are,” said Lucchesi. “It’s time we tell the world who we are, and that the world actually listens to us.”
In 2016 alone, 5,712 cases of missing Native women nationwide ― in cities, towns and rural areas ― were reported to the National Crime Information Center. Just 116 of them were logged in the U.S. Department of Justice’s missing persons database, according to UIHI’s report. Despite the sobering scope of the crisis, relatively little action has been taken at a political level.
In 2017, Democrats introduced a bill known as Savanna’s Act that is still pending in the U.S. House of Representatives. Named after 22-year-old Savanna Greywind of the Spirit Lake Tribe, who was killed while pregnant in 2017, the bill was designed in part to increase and improve data collection for cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who introduced the bill in the Senate, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who co-sponsored it, unveiled UIHI’s report on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
“When I introduced Savanna’s Act, one of the main goals was to raise the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women to a national level and begin the conversation of how to address it. ... With today’s report and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee moving forward on Savanna’s Act, we’re taking important steps toward finally raising the awareness needed to save lives and tackle this horrible epidemic,” Heitkamp said in a statement.
Too often, Echo-Hawk said, Native women and girls go missing “three times” ― in life, in data and in the media. “Their deaths are only visible to their families and to their communities who hold that grief, that hardship. And yet nobody sees it but them,” she said.
Another area where indigenous women and girls have been noticeably absent is in the global Me Too movement. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetimes, including more than half who have experienced sexual violence, according to a 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Justice. More than 1 in 3 had experienced violence in the past year.
“The epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in Indian country touches everybody in the community,” said Bree Black Horse, an attorney with the law firm of Galanda Broadman, who works to protect the civil rights of tribal individuals. “As Indian people, we all know somebody who has been murdered or who has gone missing or had been the victim of violence.”
The Me Too movement “applies to Native American women, but not in the same way,” Black Horse added. “It’s hard to worry about things like equal pay and fair treatment in the workplace when, as a Native American woman, at times you’re just trying to survive.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the middle name of Ashley Loring Heavyrunner.