Missing or Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: A Struggle of Life, Agencies and Data

Indigenous women and girls have been turning up missing or murdered at an alarming rate in the United States, and limited data shows Oklahoma is in the middle of the crisis that is now getting the attention of state legislators and law enforcement.

An Urban Indian Health Institute’s report identified 506 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women across 71 urban cities including Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Based on this data, Oklahoma has the tenth highest number of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls cases at 18, although due to the lack of comprehensive and rural data available, the true numbers are likely much higher.

Grassroots efforts around the country are organizing to help as much as they can.

“We are looking for our sisters, and we’re not going to stop fighting,” said Jo Tiger, Seminole (Creek) tribe member.

Tiger is a sophomore studying forensic science and criminal justice at the University of Central Oklahoma.

At the university level, Tiger is a part of initiatives at UCO to spread more awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, a crisis affecting Native American families throughout the U.S. and Canada. As the social chair for UCO’s Native American Student Association, Tiger has been involved with MMIW Week at UCO for two years.

This week allows students to take part in learning about MMIW through a panel of speakers, featuring guests from Oklahoma City’s MMIW group, activities and a self-defense course. However, because of novel coronavirus, MMIW was canceled due to UCO’s closure to be precautious of COVID-19 potentially spreading among students and faculty.

Tiger said the student association’s executive board wants to continue MMIW Week to motivate all students, especially Native American students, to have something they can look forward to and be a part of. Tiger also aims to educate people who want to learn about native culture.

In Tiger’s tribe, there have been two elders who have gone missing. Tiger said there are also many native women cases that have not been brought to justice.

Many families are looking to local law enforcement for help, but often are not taken seriously, Tiger said.

“What if I was a different skin color, what if I was a different person — would that lead you to help me find my daughter and find these answers?” Tiger said on behalf of native families who experience this.

Tiger said she believes as soon as a report is filed for a missing indigenous woman, it should automatically be sent out to surrounding law enforcement agencies. She said this could combat the stagnant process of filing, which is in place now, to find native people quicker.

Across the nation, native families are affected by MMIWG, including Montana, which has the fourth highest number of MMIWG cases according to the UIHI data on urban cities. 

In Hardin, Montana, many Native American families, who have lost their daughters, granddaughters, nieces and mothers feel like they are being ignored or forgotten by local, state and federal law enforcement.

These Montana residents took the justice of their loved ones in their own hands by peacefully protesting, so the names of the missing and murdered are not forgotten.

The Trump administration took note and formed a task force, headed by Attorney General William Barr, in November of 2019. The national strategy’s three areas have established Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons coordinators in 11 states in the U.S., specialized FBI teams and comprehensive data analysis.

The Department of Justice invested $1.5 million to hire the coordinators in Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, Michigan, Utah, Nevada, Minnesota, Oregon, New Mexico and Washington state. These coordinators will work with tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to develop protocols and procedures in response to MMIP.

Oklahoma’s coordinator has not yet been announced.

The FBI’s deployment teams will provide resources for cases that involve child abduction rapid deployment teams, cellular analysis support teams, evidence response teams, cyber agents for timely analysis of digital evidence and social media and victim services division response teams to name a few.

The comprehensive data analysis section of the strategy will perform in-depth data collections of MMIP and share it with other agencies involved.

More than 50 U.S. attorneys on the Native American Issues Subcommittee will be involved in these three areas, as well as the Office of Tribal Justice, the Office of Justice Programs and the Office on Violence Against Women.

Results from these initiatives have been witnessed after Selena Not Afraid went missing in Montana on New Year’s Day this year. A drone and helicopter were sent out to look for Not Afraid.

Montana’s U.S. attorney Kurt Alme told CNN reporters that Not Afraid’s case was the first one where all three U.S. initiatives were enacted to solve a MMIW case. Although Not Afraid died from hypothermia, her case is still considered open and active.

While this is considered by some to be an improvement, some native families are still unsure about government efforts regarding MMIW.

“What exactly did [law enforcement] do?” Tiger asked. “Did they really go look?”

Tiger said some tribal families are concerned about whether the Not Afraid case will happen to their daughters. To address these concerns, some Oklahoma tribes have been creating their own initiatives to ensure each MMIW case is adequately and effectively taken care of by the tribe of which they are a member.

One tribe that is putting together protocols within their programs to prevent MMIW cases from happening is the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Due to the lack of comprehensive data at the local, state and national level, the Muscogee is working to collect their own data on MMIW and MMIP.

“When you start looking at the legislation at the national level, it’s kind of eye-opening that there is no coordination between agencies,” said Del Beaver, second chief of the Muscogee. “It’s really disappointing that it’s 2020 and this hasn’t been done already.”

Beaver said his tribe has been looking at and has passed their own legislation in support of the Red Alert bill, Ida’s Law and the cultural training bill that have been introduced at the Capitol.

HB 2848, authored by Rep. Daniel Pae (R-Lawton) would require law enforcement to take an hour of CLEET training per year on MMIP. A curriculum review board would establish tribal partnerships for the training.

Pae said the hope is there would be collaboration between CLEET and tribal law enforcement. The engrossed draft was referred to a public safety committee on April 6.

Carmen Thompson’s, president of MMIW Oklahoma, niece was murdered in McAlester. She said it is important for law enforcement to receive this training to become more educated and sensitive in their approach to these cases.

“I know of two cases right now in which the police are not actively searching for the missing persons because of the lifestyle that the individuals lived,” Thompson said. “It makes us feel like we don’t matter or we are invisible; it’s kind of like a slap in the face.”

Thompson hopes that cultural competency training would reveal the previously hidden reality of the history of indigenous people. 

Both she and Beaver feel like they are just now getting some of the respect that they deserve, despite being here before statehood. 

On March 3, HB 3345, also known as “Ida’s Law” passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives with a 92 to 4 approval vote. With the purpose of facilitating better coordination between tribes and jurisdictions, an office of liaison for MMIP will be created at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. This office will take on cases involving Native Americans and work with federal, state and local law enforcement.

Another piece of legislation in the state focused on MMIP is HB 2847, or “Red Alert.” This bipartisan bill, which is modeled after Silver and Amber Alerts, would create a system in which law enforcement and the media would be notified when an indigenous person came up missing. On Feb. 4, Pae introduced the bill in a second reading referred to a public health committee.  

Although Beaver does not know why it has taken until late 2019 into 2020 to have legislation enacted for MMIW, he is glad it is happening now, rather than later. As a father of two girls, he sympathizes with tribes who have lost their daughters because there are no concrete steps of action to address these cases.

He wants his tribe’s members and non-natives to feel comfortable coming to the Muscogee for help if they are in need of assistance to get out of a violent situation.

“We have a higher percentage of missing indigenous women than anybody else, but at the same time, you can’t deny somebody just because they’re not indigenous,” Beaver said. “If somebody needs help, we have to help them, that’s just being part of a community.” 

For Ganiva Hadley of the MMIW southwest Oklahoma chapter, that has meant compiling data from three databases as well as word of mouth from other Native American families.

Hadley said there have been 148 cases of MMIWG in the state of Oklahoma as of April 30.

Despite MMIW being a fairly new term that has been coined nationwide, Beaver said the tribe has been working on these cases for about 10 to 15 years.

While the Muscogee does not have a specific database of their own to track MMIW from their tribe, Beaver said their main goal is to not get to the point where their tribal members are missing or murdered. One way that the Muscogee focuses on this aspect is their Family Violence Prevention (FVP) program.

“We provide a variety of advocacy and supportive services to victims and survivors of domestic, sexual violence, dating violence, stalking and trafficking — those are our core victimizations that we’re working to address,” said Shawn Partridge, director of FVP.

Partridge also serves as the board president for the Native Alliance Against Violence, Oklahoma’s tribal coalition group.

“The role of [NAAV] is to help unite Oklahoma tribes and tribal advocacy programs to develop strategies to reduce violence and increase safety,” Partridge said.

The issues surrounding MMIW are nothing new, Partridge said.

While Partridge said in her experience of helping families who have been impacted by missing or murdered relatives is low, the research around MMIP affected nationwide by domestic and sexual violence is significantly high. Partridge said despite tribes’ increasing efforts to protect their people, the rates of indigenous people affected by violence continues to rise.

A result of this is consistent challenges within systems, such as the Criminal Justice System, courts, non-tribal law enforcement and child welfare.

“We still see that systems fail to hold offenders accountable, and place a tremendous amount of responsibility on victims to help ensure their own safety,” Partridge said.

This is problematic because Partridge said they have not seen an increase in safety. Partridge has heard some cases where law enforcement has threatened people who have called them for assistance.

“Sitting right here in this very room, I had a victim tell me that when she called 911 for assistance, when she told the dispatcher what her name was, the dispatcher said, ‘it’s so and so family again,’ while she sat here and cried,” Partridge said.

While Partridge recognized that not all local law enforcement responds this way, whenever an instance like this occurs, she said it happens to a majority of people who she helps. In relation to MMIW, Partridge sees these responses as symptoms of non-effective ways to address domestic and sexual violence, which perpetuates the rise of violent crimes against women in particular.

“The reality is we don’t have an accurate count [of MMIW],” Partridge said.

To combat this, FVP created a task force in December 2019 called Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives with Muscogee’s executive board, adult protective services, children and family services and Lighthorse, Muscogee’s police department.

“The last two meetings we’ve had FBI [officials] that have come and joined us and have been really helpful in the discussions,” Partridge said.

From the meetings MMIR has hosted thus far, Partridge said they have concluded a specific need for protocols in place in regard to domestic and sexual violence. She also said Lighthorse has been advocating for Muscogee tribal members to make a report with them, as well as with the law enforcement agency that is within their jurisdiction.

“It does give us an opportunity to gather data on our people, and who better to be able to collect that information about our people than us,” Partridge said.

Currently, FVP is looking to create their own database with the Sovereign Bodies Institute, who works to obtain information about MMIW.

Despite the recent creation of MMIR, FVP has been working on a daily basis to prevent violent crimes from happening, Partridge said. Last year FVP served 321 victims and survivors. FVP oversees assistance for Muscogee citizens, citizens from other tribes and non-tribal members.

Fifty-seven percent of the 321 people served were native and 43 percent were non-tribal.  

The Muscogee is one of the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma, therefore, they meet with the other tribes: Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole, five times a year at the Intertribal Council. During their meetings the tribes will discuss projects and issues they are working on to benefit all natives.

FVP is one of the topics addressed at their meetings.

The Vista has reached out to all Five Civilized Tribes, but has only received responses from the Muscogee.

There are 39 tribes in Oklahoma and each tribe has their own form of law enforcement.

Muscogee’s Lighthorse follows cross deputization agreements, where tribal law enforcement can cross their jurisdictions to solve criminal cases and state law enforcement can come on tribal land to help Lighthorse with certain cases.

For any crime concerning a Muscogee tribal member, Lighthorse will work on the case and follow up with any agencies that are involved.

“There may be information that the family gives us that they may not give the other agencies,” said Robert Hawkins, chief of police for Muscogee Lighthorse.

Lighthorse will share resources with the statewide agencies to be able to quickly locate who they need to find.

The Muscogee have districts that stretch over 11 counties ranging from Tulsa to the southeast corner of the state.

Tribal law enforcement follows different conducts than local police. Lighthorse has limitations on how and when they can charge someone when a crime happens on Muscogee land, according to Beaver.

For each missing case that is reported to Lighthorse, the department responds with the same action, Hawkins said. After determining whose jurisdiction it is, the first step of action for Lighthorse when a person goes missing is to log the information into the National Crime Information Center, a crime database utilized by law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Hawkins also said Lighthorse will look at how long a person has been missing.

“We would hope that if somebody has gone missing, their family would be contacting us immediately because the longer you wait, the less likely it is you’re going to find this person,” Hawkins said.

People do not have to wait 48 hours to report a missing person, and Partridge said it is key that people are aware of this and feel comfortable contacting police whenever.

Hawkins’ officers will then begin by canvassing the area in which the missing person was last reported at and looking farther in surrounding areas, which may be outside of their jurisdiction. His officers and investigators will talk to people that the missing person is associated with.

The department has seven investigators.

If a case is a homicide, Lighthorse is required to contact the FBI. Once a case is a homicide, the FBI has jurisdiction and Lighthorse will work alongside them if it concerns one of their citizens.

Regarding how Lighthorse keeps track of all their reports, the department has WinSoms, their system that keeps records of every incident report filed.

Eventually, Lighthorse will have access through the Tribal Access Program, a system that allows federally recognized tribes to use national crime information systems and exchange data with other agencies across the Criminal Justice Information Services.

Lighthorse received the DOJ’s TAP through a grant, and will begin to use it by August, Hawkins said.

His department is in the process of obtaining instant fingerprinting equipment that will allow the department to input fingerprint data into national crime information systems. Hawkins said this “scan and send” system will make the process of finding people quicker.

Without TAP, Lighthorse has to make phone calls to other agencies to find out information.  

Lighthorse also does not keep a specific database for MMIW. Every month, they send a crime report to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, similar to a Uniform Crime Reporting program that the FBI uses.

“We don’t get a lot of missing persons cases, sometimes they aren’t even reported, or if they are, they’re reported on the state’s side and we know nothing of it,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said sometimes the state does not share information with them regarding missing Muscogee citizens, and he does not know why that is. However, for the most part, agencies are helpful in their collaboration with Lighthorse.

He said his investigators are staying on top of what is going on at the Capitol that will inherently affect them regarding MMIW. His department is focused on treating each missing and murdered case equally, he said.

While there are a number of factors that contribute to MMIW, like human trafficking, Hawkins said Lighthorse’s priority is to ensure no family has to go through losing a loved one.  

In regard to media coverage of MMIW, Beaver said he believes in general there is not enough consistent coverage about natives who have gone missing or have been murdered.

“It seems like it’s predominantly white people that the national news is [covering],” Beaver said.

While MMIW is a complex issue, Beaver said he hopes they are better prepared situationally in the future.

“We can’t go back in time and fix this, we can only do what we can now,” Beaver said.

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