FREDERICKSBURG, Virginia — Making up roughly 5% of the world’s population, Indigenous people experience disproportionate impacts of poverty and injustice due to intense marginalization and lack of access to resources and protective services. Native communities and activists, in coordination with the federal government, are coming together to address the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
Understanding the Current Status of Indigenous People
According to Amnesty International, the world is home to 476 million Indigenous people, accounting for approximately 5% of the global population. With thousands of Indigenous communities and languages existing worldwide, native peoples reside within the Earth’s most biodiverse and resource-abundant lands. While native populations are incredibly diverse, with many unique cultures, languages and practices, Indigenous people share the harshest of realities.
As a result of centuries worth of colonization, forced assimilation, exploitation and underrepresentation, Indigenous peoples suffer from heavy marginalization and discriminatory practices within domestic and international institutional systems. Consequently, Indigenous peoples make up 15% of the world’s population living in extreme poverty, Amnesty International reports. Indigenous populations also experience higher rates of displacement, exposure to diseases, food insecurity, human rights violations and violence. As a result, the life expectancy rate among Indigenous people is up to 20 years less than non-Indigenous people, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says.
Violence and Injustice Against Indigenous People in the US
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) reports that Native Americans face higher rates of violent and sexual crimes than the national average, with missing and murdered Indigenous people accounting for a significant portion of cases. Native women, girls and two-spirit individuals are disproportionately impacted by cases of stalking, sex trafficking, homicide and domestic and sexual violence than “other racial and ethnic groups.”
Approximately “84.3[%] of American Indian and Alaska Native women” have faced violence during their lifetimes. Homicide rates for women on reservations are “up to  times higher than the national average” and “murder is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women,” according to the 2018 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report. In cases of sex trafficking across the North American continent, Indigenous women constitute an estimated average of 40% of victims.
While native women and girls are the primary targets of trafficking and violent and sexual crimes, Indigenous elders, adolescents and men are also victims of violent crimes. Approximately 82% of American Indian and Alaska Native men have experienced violent crimes and Indigenous children face an increased risk of abuse and trauma compared to non-Indigenous children, the Congressional Research Service reported in 2022.
Justice for Murdered and Missing Indigenous People in the US
The BIA reports that more than 4,000 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people remain unresolved. This is due to the centuries of degradation practices stemming from colonization, lack of tribal autonomy and underfunding of vital protection services. As a result, Indigenous people lack crucial access to life-saving resources.
On November 15, 2021, President Biden issued an executive order calling for the federal government to prioritize Native Americans’ safety and address “the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous people.” The executive order recognizes the long history of disproportionate rates of racial, sexual and gender-based violence against Indigenous communities. The order aims to tackle the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people by investing more significant resources to collect and analyze data in coordination with tribal leaders, local communities, Native American organizations and law enforcement agencies.
Since the executive order’s release, there have been significant strides in the fight to address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people. In 2020, the president signed into law the Not Invisible Act, introduced in the House in 2019 by then-Representative Debra Haaland. As secretary of the Department of the Interior, Haaland established the Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services (BIA-OJS) in 2021 to tackle cases of murder and disappearance among Indigenous people in the United States.
Together, both the act and the unit create a wide-scale interdepartmental effort to reduce violence against Native Americans. With more investigative resources available, “the MMU, in addition to reviewing unsolved cases, will immediately begin working with Tribal, BIA and FBI Investigators on active Missing and Murdered investigations,” a Department of Interior press release says.
This year, on May 4, 2022, the Biden administration declared May 5 Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day. The day honors the victims and their families and spreads awareness of the dire situation afflicting countless Native Americans. The proclamation reflects efforts of coordination between federal and tribal authorities to enhance prevention and early intervention, data collection and sharing between agencies and protective services made in the previous Executive Order.
In addition, the proclamation announces the signing of the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2022, which “expands special criminal jurisdiction of Tribal courts to cover non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse, stalking, sex trafficking and assaults on Tribal law enforcement officers on Tribal lands and supports the development of a pilot project to enhance access to safety for survivors in Alaska Native villages.”
While significant efforts to curtail the alarming rates of missing and murdered Indigenous people are underway, continued multilateral efforts are imperative. Addressing harmful stereotypes and stigmas and decolonizing public perception and practices are vital to establishing safer and sustainable Indigenous communities both domestically and abroad.
– Ricardo Silva