This article is being shared with permission from the publisher, Chaise Lounge, and the author Anna Lynch.
The link to the original article is here.
The Women Working to Solve Cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
Many Americans are unaware of the large number of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) in the U.S. and Canada. The federal government only collects data on women from federally recognized tribes, so large swaths of Indigenous women are left out leading to a gross undercount. Even with the undercount, Indigenous women are ten times more likely to be murdered than the national average according to the Department of Justice data. While there are several reasons for the undercount, which will be discussed later, raising the issues and working toward solutions is imperative to bringing justice for these women and their families. The issues are complicated, but that does not mean that, as a nation, we cannot work toward solutions.
Some of the problems with collecting the data include poor record-keeping, racial misclassification, and unresolved animosities between tribal governments and non-Native law enforcement officials. We can also add to that list a misclassification of the means of death. For example, in North Carolina, there is a case of an Indigenous woman who was found stuffed in a trash can. Yet the police have yet to classify her case as a murder calling it “undetermined”. Do they think she put herself in there?
Some hold the false belief that there really are very few Indigenous people left because they have never met one. So when a law enforcement officer reports an Indigenous person who has been murdered, they frequently classify the victim as Hispanic or African-American. No one necessarily asks the family members of the racial or ethnic background of the victims, so this oversight becomes an erasure of Indigenous peoples.
In many Indigenous communities, there is a mistrust of government agents, including law enforcement, after centuries of broken promises. These bad feelings can go both ways with police sometimes not taking cases of missing Indigenous people as seriously. Additionally, jurisdictional issues arise when it comes to which agencies can prosecute crimes against Indigenous peoples. The laws are complicated, and you can read more about that in last week’s article.
Trafficking is another large issue contributing to the MMIW numbers. According to Valaura Imus-Nahsonhoya, a Hopi expert on human trafficking in Indian country,
The high rates of poverty and hardship in tribal communities; historical trauma and culture loss; homelessness and runaway youth; high rates of involvement with child welfare systems, including entry into the foster care system; exposure to violence in the home or community; drug and alcohol abuse; and low levels of law enforcement all add up to a community rich in targets for traffickers.
All of these issues put together contribute to the erasure of Indigenous peoples, especially those who are not in federally recognized tribes when it comes to the investigation of crimes against them. There are those within the Indigenous communities who are working toward bringing this issue to national awareness in the hope of securing more funding for investigations and changing long-held attitudes toward Indigenous people. While this article focuses on Indigenous people in North Carolina, there are Indigenous people across the country involved in this work.
Indigenous Women Creating Awareness and Providing Information
Red Justice Project
Because the issue of MMIW has been longstanding without resolution, Indigenous women in North Carolina are taking the reins and developing innovative ways to raise awareness. Brittany Hunt and Chelsea Locklear, two women from the Lumbee tribe, created the Red Justice Project, a weekly podcast where they discuss unsolved cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people from around the country and Canada. Hunt and Locklear hope the podcast will allow non-indigenous folks to better understand the context for the issue.
“Just getting the broader non-Indigenous community to hear these stories so that they can understand what’s going on from our perspective. A lot of true crime podcasts talk about the actual crimes themselves, but they don’t really get into the political and judicial kind of ramifications of how the stories are told, especially if it is about a non-white person.”
“I think that is one form of justice, people caring, you know, masses of people caring about what happened to you. And that doesn’t happen for Native women and girls, unfortunately, most of the time. Faith Hedgepeth is the closest, I think we’ve gotten to having more like national coverage of a crime against an indigenous woman in recent history.”
Each episode within the podcast tells the story of one missing or murdered Indigenous person. Hunt and Locklear give the historical context of the time and place where the event happened, allowing the listener to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural and political issues involved.
In addition to bringing awareness to the issue, their hope is for someone to leave a tip on their tipline that would lead to a case being solved.
Creating a Database
If you read the previous article in this series, you know that there is no one database to contains the information for all of the MMIW, only those from federally recognized tribes, and even that one leaves out many women. But Crystal Cavalier-Keck, a doctoral student and a citizen of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation in Burlington, NC, is tackling the problem of missing data for unrecognized tribes. She created the Missing Murdered Indigenous Coalition of NC which hosts the annual National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in North Carolina. The website also collects information on MMIW to add to the database. Cavalier-Keck has scoured news articles from local papers in North Carolina and many missing persons websites to find cases of MMIW to add to the database. She is hopeful that the Biden administration will be more open to working with state-recognized tribes at least around the MMIW issue. She says,
“Currently, I have been lobbying for legislation to create a task force and to create a database that the state will maintain. I would like that database to reside under the Commission of Indian Affairs. That is our government, which was established by the General Assembly, so it would only be natural for them to house that data.
Cavalier-Keck is also working with other Indigenous groups nationally to pool their information. She has a memorandum of understanding with the Sovereign Bodies Institute and is reaching out to other organizations that work on collecting information on MMIW to work together to create a robust and accurate database.
The lack of attention and awareness of the MMIW issue is a reflection of centuries of negligence on the part of the United States government. The history creates an environment where MMIW cases are poorly investigated while cases of missing white women get a full media spotlight. While we cannot undo the past, we can move into a future where we recognize inequities and address them head-on with strength, compassion, and most importantly resources as these three women are illustrating for all of us.
Brittany Danielle Hunt is a member of the Lumbee Tribe and a Ph.D. student in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Brittany received her Bachelor of Arts from Duke University and a Master of Social Work from UNC-Chapel Hill. She developed and operates the American Indian Urban Education Division at the Urban Education Collaborative and currently teaches at Davidson College. Her research interests include the experiences of American Indian students in education, but more specifically how the K-12 system disenfranchises Native history in the classroom and those effects on American consciousness and Native cultural identity.
Chelsea Locklear was raised in Pembroke, North Carolina and is a member of the Lumbee Tribe. By day she is a business analyst for a private credit fund, and by night she’s a dreamer and schemer, planning her next passion project. She is the Co-host of The Red Justice Project, a true-crime podcast focused solely on missing and murdered indigenous stories. Chelsea received her Bachelor’s degree from NC State and an MPA from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Crystal Cavalier-Keck is the co-founder of Seven Directions of Service with her husband. She is a citizen of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation in Burlington, NC. She is the Chair of the Environmental Justice Committee for the NAACP, a board member of the Haw River Assembly, and a member of the 2020 Fall Cohort of the Sierra Club’s Gender Equity and Environment Program and Women’s Earth Alliance (WEA) Accelerator for Grassroots Women Environmental Leaders. Crystal is currently working on her Doctorate at the University of Dayton and dissertation on Social Justice of Missing Murdered Indigenous Women and Gas/Oil Pipelines in frontline communities. Crystal is also an expert in her field of Strategic Intelligence, Political Campaigns, and Public Administration. She has conducted training along and around the East Coast on Coordinated Tribal/Community Response for emergency management, through natural, cyber, or man-made disasters.