Native American Heritage Month - Violence Against Indigenous Women and Children
One of the most underreported yet alarming phenomena taking place across the United States are the strikingly high rates of disappearances and murders of indigenous women and children. These crimes represent one of the greatest threats to the well-being of current-day Native American populations today yet the profound levels of bureaucracy within federal and state law enforcement agencies has resulted in a vastly underrepresented statistic for the accurate figures of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. The U.S Department of Justice only reported 116 cases, while the National Crime Information center reported a whopping 5,712. This means that only approximately two percent of these cases are being properly recorded and sent to a law enforcement agency for investigations, consequently resulting in the perpetrators of these heinous crimes going unpunished. Furthermore, ninety-six percent of the perpetrators who carry out homicides against indigenous women are non-indigenous themselves.
In an ultimate miscarriage of justice, the dilemma of tribal law enforcement not having the authority to prosecute non-indigenous individuals results in the perpetrators frequently escaping accountability. These alarming rates of violence are so staggering that murder has become the third-leading cause of death among Native American women – a rate ten times higher than the national average. The scope and scale of the crisis has gotten so calamitous that Native American organizations and advocacy groups have begun to refer to the current situation as a genocide. Thus, outreach and spreading awareness is absolutely crucial in order to familiarize people with the severity of the crisis and encourage them to speak out to their communities. We invite you to read our newsletter and to educate yourself about the details of the predicament facing Native American women and hope that you will be spurred to take action and aid us in spreading awareness.
The Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University states in their territorial acknowledgement, “We acknowledge that Texas A&M University (College Station) is situated on the land of multiple Native nations, past and present. These original homelands are the territory of Indigenous peoples who were largely dispossessed and removed. We specifically acknowledge the traditional stewardship of this land by the Tonkawa, Tawakoni, Hueco, Sana, Wichita, and Coahuiltecan peoples. We pledge to support and advocate for the histories, cultures, languages, and territorial rights of historic Indigenous peoples of Texas and the Indigenous people that live here now. This statement affirms continuous Indigenous presence and rights, acknowledges the ongoing effects of settler colonization, and supports Indigenous struggles for political, legal, and cultural sovereignty.” If you are a student at Texas A&M University, we encourage you to keep this statement in mind.
Even with all the progress that has been made regarding representation and diversity within politics and media, representation of native people is still scarce, and the few depictions that do exist in media often promote harmful stereotypes. Think, for example, the movies Pocahontas (1995) and Twilight (2008); both contain native characters and have had major influence on pop culture, but both also reduce their characters’ native identities to overgeneralized stereotypes and center their roles within the story around their white counterparts. Without proper representation, marginalized demographics are more likely to be dehumanized, which can lead to increased violence against them.
Yet, despite everything, there is always progress that deserves to be celebrated. Here are just a few prominent native figures and pieces of positive native representation within the media as of late.
Sacheen Littlefeather was an American actress and social activist with Yaqui ancestry. She passed away this year from breast cancer at age 75, but the effects of her activism and impact are ever-present. She is best known for her speech at the 1973 Oscar’s, where she declined a Best Actor Oscar for Marlon Brando in order to make light of the mistreatment of Native Americans in film and the occupation of Wounded Knee. After almost 50 years, the Academy offered her an apology this year for the backlash she had dealt with, after she endured verbal and physical threats, and was blacklisted from Hollywood events.
This 2021 Hulu Show was praised for being written by Indigenous people, about Indigenous people, and played by Indigenous people. The two seasons follow four native teens living on a reservation in Oklahoma who are trying to make it out to California. The show has received praise and recognition for bringing Indigenous voices front and center on a major streaming platform, although it isn’t without its faults, as the first season was criticized for its lack of Afro-Indigenous representation, especially due to how this reflects the setting of the show in real life. Regardless, it is a huge turning point for Native American representation in the media.
Sharice Davids became one of the first Native American women who were sworn into Congress in 2018, along with the first LGBTQ+ Native American as well. She is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and currently a congressional representative of Kansas.
Dehumanization of Native Americans:
Indigenous people being used as mascots for American sports, football in particular, is problematic and dehumanizing as it subjects Indigenous people to become caricatures of their own identity. This is not only present on the national team level, but also is apparent in high school and collegiate sports. One of the more major football teams that used an Indigenous person as their mascot is the Washington Redskins. In 2013, Dan Snyder, owner of the team at the time, came to the defense of the Redskins in a letter he wrote addressing it to the season ticket holders with two major claims about why the team mascot is not problematic– it’s tradition and it's an honor. These two claims are the most common arguments when it comes to addressing the problematic nature of having an Indigenous person as a team mascot.
The first claim is centered around the idea that having this Indigenous person as a mascot upholds a tradition for many sports fans and therefore is worthy of respect and should be preserved. This begs the question: what tradition needs to be upheld? Which is quickly answered as being a settler-colonial tradition. This has been ever present in the history of Indigenous people in the United States where the settlers partake in a sort of “replacement narrative” which has been used as a means to justify settler’s coming in and taking the land of Indigenous people during early American colonization. Snyder notes that he views this as a type of monument for Indigenous people and a way to pay respect to the history that they have been forced to be part of– which he successfully upholds the very system that has been used to oppress them for generations. (Bruyneel, 2016).
The next claim brings about the subject of being proud that this identity has been used to represent the team and they should be honored. This rhetoric walks a line between taking accountability and bordering on victim-blaming. The argument of it being an honor is deeply woven with the claim that it is a tradition. In the instance of the Washington Redskins, Snyder argues that it is not meant to be derogatory but instead it is meant to represent what the team finds admirable about Indigenous people… their “honor. Loyalty. Unity. Respect. Courage”. These admirable qualities have not previously been used to commend Indigineous people but instead are used to actively promote a nationalist identity. Which is problematic because it does not address the history and treatment of Indigineous people in the United States. (Bruyneel, 2016).
Violence Towards Indigenous Groups:
The Association of American Indian Affairs works to provide information on issues related to violence in Indigenous communities, specifically in the United States. It has been reported that Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are 2.5 times more likely to experience violent crimes and 2 times more likely to experience rape/sexual assault in comparison to other races. In addition, homicide is the third leading cause of death in Native American and Alaskan Native women between the ages of 10 and 24 and the fifth leading cause of death for Native American and Alaskan Native women between 25 and 34 years of age. More than 4 in 5 (about 84.3 percent) Native American and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime.
Healthy People 2020 is a federal government initiative aiming at threats to health within the nation, establishing goals and solutions to meet such marks in an effort to create a healthier community for all. In a sample gathered, objectives pertaining to health disparities and issues (substance abuse, disorders, food safety) were remarked and progress by each racial/ethnic groups were displayed on a figure: 55.1% of Native Americans or Alaskan Natives saw little to no visible changes, or deteriorating progress. Native American and Alaskan Natives are found to suffer from disparities pertaining to substance abuse and are observed to have higher rates of alcohol and drug use disorders compared to other racial groups.
Missing, But Not Forgotten:
For many years Native Americans have been going missing and that information is not being shared as widely as their white counterparts. More than 4,200 Native Americans have gone missing in the United States and have never been found, and some of these cases have even been closed. Why is it that no one is speaking up about the thousands of Native Americans who are still missing today? In this section we will be sharing some of the individuals who are still missing and discussing what you can do to help.
Ashley Loring Heavyrunner is a 26 year-old female who went missing when she was 21. She was last seen on June 13, 2017 on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. She specifically lived in Browning, Montana. She has dark hair, is 5’2, about 90 lbs, and she has a check mark scar on her hand.
Arden Pepion was 3 years old when she went missing and is now 4. She was last seen on April 22, 2021 on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. She also lived in Browning, Montana just like Ashley. She had brown hair and eyes, at the time was 3’ and weighed 31lbs. Both of these people went missing just 4 years within each other in the exact same area.
Mildred Flett has been missing since June 8, 2010. At that time she was 51 years old, last seen in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She is from the Tataskweyak Cree Nation there. There was difficulty with getting the police’s attention at the beginning, but in the end a cash reward of at least $4,000 was used to try to get information on Flett.
Danita Faith Bigeagle has been missing since February 11, 2007. She was 22 years old, last seen in Regina, Saskatchewan. She was a mother of two, Cassidy and Talon. Talon was only nine months old when she went missing. With no new leads, the case is now classified as a cold case. Both of these families felt like the help they got was lacking and hoped that there would be more outreach and assistance with the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
What You Can Do Now:
- The first step is to get informed! Make sure to listen to Indigenous voices that are spreading awareness about their culture, educating others, or asking for help. Listening to and believing survivors that speak up is the first step to breaking a cycle of abuse. It is important to provide a safe space that is free from judgment or victim blaming.
- Inform others on what is happening! A key step in education and awareness about Native American history and current events is having conversations about the issues racial stereotypes and gender roles create. Teaching people from a young age to challenge traditional gender roles and speak out against racism will raise young advocates, slowly creating a better future for all.
- Fund organizations and sign petitions! If possible, donate to organizations that fund ending violence against Indigenous women, help survivors, and are fighting to end current issues happening in the Indigenous community. Organizations you can support: https://www.niwrc.org/donate, https://www.naha-inc.org/, https://www.nicwa.org/
Links for petitions:
Links for organizations: