Five people shared a stage built on Salish land, among them a lawyer, a student, an anthropologist and two community organizers, for a panel discussion on the solution to the staggering number of Native American women and children reported missing and murdered.
They appeared as the keynote speakers for the University of Montana’s three-day DiverseU symposium. The panel met on the momentum of decades of abuse and neglect. In the past 10 years, reports and personal testimony have emerged that connect missing and murdered Indigenous women to a web of violence both on and off tribal lands, and across the Northern Hemisphere.
“It’s not a Native American problem, it’s an American problem,” said Rosalyn LaPier, a UM professor and member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Métis who facilitated the discussion.
While documented abuse of Indigenous women in the Americas has a history going back to the arrival of Christopher Columbus, LaPier cited vigils along a stretch of road known as the “Highway of Tears” in British Columbia, and data collection by the Canadian government starting in the 1990s as the beginning of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.
In June 2019,a three-year national inquiry that included testimony from 1,500 members of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis concluded that the number of missing and murdered women in the country amounted to genocide.
In the United States, as part of the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act,information gathered by the Department of Justice showed that 4 out of 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women experience violence during their lifetime in the form of murder, assault, stalking and rape.
“You can have anecdotal stories, but sometimes those anecdotal stories don’t carry the same weight as a study,” said LaPier.
Indigenous people who had been trying to address the epidemic for years found a national forum after the publication of this information, according to LaPier.
Briana Lamb, Aaniiih and Nez Perce, has been an activist in the MMIW movement for over nine years. In the past two years, she worked with Sen. Jon Tester in shaping national policies in confronting violence against all Indigenous people.
UM political science student Marita Growing Thunder and Courtney Little Axe, currently at work returning Indigenous remains and artifacts back to the lands where archeologists collected them as novelties and used them to further a eugenics agenda, agreed that awareness of the MMIW movement does not accomplish enough.
All five panel members said they’ve experienced racism, either during their time in school or through their work, and the legacy of bigotry and dehumanization of Indigenous people can be seen in the data.
The National Institute of Justice reports that one in three Native American women are rape survivors, and in 85% of these cases a non-Native is the rapist.
“As far as awareness goes, it’s good, but there’s ways to do it with direct action. What comes along with this work is holding people accountable,” Little Axe said.
That accountability, according to ACLU Indigenous Justice Legal Fellow Lillian Alvernaz, will come through policy and law. She asked those in attendance to encourage their tribal leaders to adopt codes addressing human trafficking and domestic violence.
“Make sure that this is on everyone’s mind,” she said.
Lamb, who transitioned from activism to helping to write policy, said anyone who wants to get involved with the MMIW movement just needs to “play to their strengths.”
Misty LaPlant’s strength is in law enforcement.
Starting in September 2019, LaPlant has worked at the missing persons specialist for the state’s Department of Justice. Prior to that, she spent years working as a Glacier County deputy and Blackfeet tribal police officer. She also earned a degree in social work from UM during that time.
Montana passed legislation during its most recent session to create LaPlant’s position, along with the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, due to the efforts of people like Lamb and panelist Iko'tsimiskimaki Beck.
LaPlant met those attending at a booth prior to the panel. A stack of paper sat in front of her listing the names and number of missing Native Americans in Montana, a state that a 2018 report from Urban Indian Health Institute ranked fifth in the number of cases of missing Indigenous women and girls.
As attendees picked up the list of Montana’s missing, LaPlant noted that the number has dropped by 20 since she took the position.
The UIHI writes in the report that limited resources and poor data collection mean that the figures in the report are likely an undercount. As part of her new position, LaPlant aims to change that.
The National Institute of Justice launched the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, at national database to get an accurate reflection of who is missing in the United states, and where. Currently, eight states have passed legislation mandating that their police all data on missing indigenous people into their mainframe. Although Montana is not one of those states, LaPlant enters the names of those missing in Montana for more than 60 days into NamUs.
Tribal, state and national law enforcement agencies have utilized the data of NamUs to solve 358 missing person cases as of July 2019, according to the NIJ.
Resources for survivors and their family members can be found at:
Student Advocacy Resource Center (SARC): (406) 243-4429 https://www.umt.edu/student-advocacy-resource-center/About%20SARC/default.php
The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC): www.niwrc.org/resources.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)/ www.thehotline.org/help.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)/ www.rainn.org/get-help.
The National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC): www.victimsofcrime.org.
Additional victim service programs and organizations can be found in the Online Directory of Crime Victim Services, a resource from the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC). The Online Directory is available at http://ovc.ncjrs.gov/findvictimservices.