A true national emergency: Missing and murdered indigenous woman and girls

Countless indigenous families, friends and communities have endured the tragic loss of women and girls who have either gone missing or who have been murdered. Having survived the pain of losing loved ones to homicide and working both missing person and homicide cases as a law enforcement detective, I understand the pain and sorrow of this loss. But as a non-indigenous person, I cannot speak through personal experience to the pain and anger of having to endure this loss with the additional pain of having a justice system that spends little to no time working to locate those who have gone missing or to hold predators and perpetrators accountable.

The number of cases of indigenous missing and murdered women and girls in this country is staggering, and the situation is a true national emergency that must be addressed at every level within the justice system and society. A 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute states that in 2016, more than 5,700 American Indian or Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing or murdered, but only 116 of those cases were logged into the Justice Department’s missing persons database. Other statistics show the rates of violence against indigenous women and girls are much higher than the national average, and that murder is the third leading cause of death among these groups of women. In my career, I have had the honor and privilege to visit more than 40 American Indian and Alaska Native communities while working as a training and technical assistance provider to law enforcement, victim service and community-based programs to build responses to domestic violence and sexual assault.

During my time in these communities, I clearly heard two major points being made. The first point expressed was the lack of an appropriate law enforcement response to solve cases of violence and missing persons, which results in a very low rate of cases being solved. The second point, which I heard in each and every community visited, was the sense that the voices of indigenous people were not being included in the development of responses to this crisis. The message I clearly heard and understood was a response being planned, developed and implemented by federal and state agencies with little or no input of indigenous people. This does not mean the intentions of those attempting to help were not genuine, but what it does show is a clear lack of understanding. Taking this approach is about as effective as opening a training in an indigenous community with the line, “Hi, I am from the government, and I am here to help.” It simply isn’t effective.

We have a deeply flawed system that has marginalized and disenfranchised indigenous people. Our justice system and society in general remains complicit in violence targeting American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. It is well past the time for a plan of action to be developed and implemented that includes the voice of indigenous people from every region of this country. This plan must not forget the indigenous women and girls who live in urban communities off reservations or outside of Native villages. I believe there is a false perception that this issue does not affect these women and girls.

It is time for the indigenous people of this country to be heard. It is time that we legitimize indigenous women and communities. It is time for the conversation to begin. It is time that we honor those who have been so tragically lost and honor those who continue to suffer these injustices. The time is now to address this national emergency and build the path to healing.

Dan Hally is a former law enforcement detective. He specialized in investigating stalking, domestic violence, homicide and interviewing victims of trauma. He is a forensic artist and completed the FBI Forensic Facial Imaging Academy. He has extensive experience working in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

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