For more than 80 percent of Native American and Alaska Native women, experiencing violence throughout their lifetimes is a harsh reality. In fact, Native women in some areas of the country are murdered at 10 times the national average. Often the public perceives that most missing and murdered Indigenous women cases occur on rural reservations, but 71 percent of American Indians/Alaska Natives live in urban areas. Oklahoma is home to 39 tribes and ranks 10th in the nation for missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“While I am not an expert on missing and murdered Indigenous people, I know that the root causes of this crisis go back to colonization, assimilation and federal legislation that was designed over a century ago to erode tribal sovereignty, especially the matriarch,” said Oklahoma State Rep. Mickey Dollens during a Nov. 19 interim study hearing on missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Rep. Dollens recruited Native Americans statewide to help find potential legislative solutions through the interim study. Olivia Gray, citizen of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, director of the Osage Nation Family Violence Prevention Department and founding member of the Northeast Oklahoma Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, presented first during the hearing.
“We’re just asking that you don’t do stuff to us — you do things with us and in collaboration with us,” Gray said. “Because we have a lot of knowledge as we’ve been dealing with this issue since the boats landed. Our women have been going missing and being murdered since the boats landed. We know what we’re doing here.”
Leaders across Oklahoma, Indian Country and loved ones of missing and murdered Indigenous people filled the room in the state capitol, including family members of Emily Morgan. Her mother Kim Merryman discussed Morgan’s case, highlighting the need for legislative changes.
“All that I know to do is to be her voice and to share her story,” Merryman said. Morgan was a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. In August 2016, authorities discovered the bodies of Morgan and her friend Totinika Elix in Bache, Oklahoma, near McAlister. More than three years later, no arrests have been made.
“She was 23 years old. She was in college in her third semester, and she didn’t know that the third leading cause of death (for Native women) was murder,” Merryman said. “And she is one of those statistics.”
With nearly 40 tribes throughout Oklahoma, the overlay of jurisdictional boundaries including tribal, local, county and state law enforcement can result in mismanaged cases. During the Nov. 19 hearing, Gray proposed setting aside funds to establish a group of investigators with the authority to overrule municipal, county and state law enforcement.
“We have to have investigators that can override those county sheriffs that say it’s a lifestyle issue … colonization and the things that go along with that are historic trauma, our intergenerational trauma,” Gray said. “We can’t look at a lifestyle and say, ‘I don’t want to spend resources on a drug addict,’ because that person still deserves to be found.”
Gray also addressed the need for greater communication between law enforcement and tribes.
“We already notify tribes now when there is an Indian child that goes into foster care. … So why can’t we make this a part of the process when there’s a missing person’s report or there’s a murder victim found?” Gray asked. “Let’s make it a part of the process to contact that tribe, because it’s their citizen. And it’s not just their citizen, it’s their relative.”
Additionally, Native women experience violence by interracial perpetrators at a higher rate than any other race, and often violence starts at home.
“It’s not just a missing and murder issue. More times than not, the cases that we look into on that end are tied to domestic violence or trafficking or sexual assaults or childhood sexual assaults,” Gray said.
In 1978, a U.S. Supreme Court case determined tribes cannot prosecute non-Native perpetrators who commit crimes on tribal or reservation land. Legislation that restores tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty as nations is one key component to overcoming this epidemic.
“Beyond that, if we’re not going to be restoring the right of the local governments on the ground to protect women where they live in their homes, then we need to be thinking about legislation that provides resources and funding to tribal law enforcement,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, Cherokee Nation citizen, attorney at Pipestem Law and missing and murdered Indigenous women’s activist.
Lacking a joint database for municipalities, states, tribes and the federal government to report and manage cases makes it more difficult to track MMIW numbers and is not conducive to open communication. Native women are falling through the system’s cracks.
“We also need to think about giving tribal law enforcement access to national databases and then mechanisms that will ensure that state, local and county governments also put Native women who are murdered or go missing into that database,” she added.
More than 5,700 Indigenous women across the United States were missing or murdered in 2016, but the Department of Justice database accounted for only 116 of those, according to an Urban Indian Health Institute study.
“If a crime is committed against Native women, the jurisdiction falls to the state if it is not on tribal lands, and all too often, the state doesn’t have the desire or the wherewithal to prosecute or investigate crimes committed against Native women, and oftentimes those cases go unprosecuted or uninvestigated, which is a huge problem,” Nagle said.
Until recently, most news outlets did not cover the issue in-depth, and the public’s lack of education creates additional hurdles to overcome.
“The media has a short attention focus, and I think for the most part, Native women are invisible. The invisibility is really hard to combat, and it leads to a lot of situations where we’re just left out,” she said.
“We have to be very vigilant in Congress and demand justice there, and we have to start demanding respect for our tribal governments and tribal courts because those are our first defenders for the safety of Native women; and right now, we’re not respected by non-Natives, so we have to work to build that respect and restore it,” Nagle said.
Members of both the House and Senate have drafted legislation recently, including Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act. The latter improves communication and database management amongst tribal, county, state and federal law enforcement. Not Invisible Act establishes an advisory committee to draft recommendations for the Department of Interior and Department of Justice.
While missing and murdered Indigenous women is usually a bipartisan issue, politics and personal opinions have interfered with passing legislation.
“Some senators think that any tribal jurisdiction over a non-Indian violates the United States Constitution,” Nagle said. “I don’t think there is anything in the United States Constitution to support that notion, but that doesn’t stop some senators from having that thought.”
In Oklahoma, Rep. Dollens and other members of the statehouse are drafting legislation that addresses the issue and sets an example for other states.
During a phone interview with the Hownikan, Nagle highlighted that a variety of opportunities exist to help make an impact across Indian Country, including running for tribal office, meeting with elected officials and continuing to practice tribal traditions.
“We need everyone on board and advocating for a change in the legal framework but also a restoration of our traditional cultural values,” Nagle said. “We’ve always known women are sacred, that women are not treated this way with violence. I think even in our own communities, we need to do work to restore those cultural values.
“I think more people have stepped up to the plate to advocate for this issue, and it certainly has gotten more attention in the media, which is great.”
Recent efforts have increased awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women, but finding a long-term solution requires additional work.
“People need to work across jurisdictional boundaries to support an investigation. They need to not use facts that they haven’t yet uncovered as a reason to say they don’t have jurisdiction and disclaim any responsibility,” Nagle said. “We really cannot abide by that, and we need all hands on deck. That’s the only way we’re going to start to curb this epidemic of violence.”