Invisible No More: Spotlight on the Once Silent MMIW Crisis

Congresswoman Sharice Davids (D-KS) with an MMIW campaign billboard.

National Day Of Awareness For Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women
Guest Commentary

Published May 5, 2019

“I stand before you today, a full-blooded Native American woman, a Northern Arapaho/Hunkpapa Lakota. The statistics that hang over my head are these: I am among the most stalked, raped, murdered, sexually assaulted, and abused of any women in any ethnic group, and I am among those who suffer domestic violence 50 times higher than the national average.” I use that statement to open my presentations on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis. I travel around Indian Country, as I have for years, to raise awareness and inform our people of the scale of the tragedy and, crucially, how to make a safer environment for their communities and families. I have done this work for over a decade, and when I committed to it the term “MMIW” had not been coined. I am somebody who works with data, but Chairman Gerald Grey of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC) recently made a statement that should resonate with us all, that speaks to more than numbers: “I choose not to quote statistics because our women and girls are human beings not statistics. This is mom. Auntie. Sister. Niece. Daughter. Cousin. And sometimes, grandma. We know the names of some of the victims, but study after study shows that MMIWG cases are underreported, so there are many, many names we do not and may never know.”

This is personal. When we learn of another victim near or far, in our reservations communities we can relate on a deep, emotional level. We may not know the victim or their family, but we know the socio-economic conditions; we know the struggle.

NOND Founder & GIC Senior Vice President Lynette Gray Bull at Yale University

Many of us have moved to urban environments for periods of our lives, and there again, when we read of another MMIW victim taken in a city, we grieve from the common experience of knowing the bonds that exist in urban Indian communities. The victims aren’t strangers, they are our missing sisters. Like many of you, I have a daughter. Though we may not want to hear it, one of my brothers gave voice to what haunts us all when he spoke about his daughter in the context of this crisis – what Senator Tester rightly calls an epidemic. “We try to make our kids aware, but as careful as I know she is, there are moments when I look at her and I wonder if she will be next. Will she be the next not to call or text? The next not to come home. The next a cop suggests may be drinking or partying, or on a joyride with a new boyfriend. The next found in a ditch along an empty highway. The next found in a snowbank or washed up on a lake shore. The next. What we know for certain is that sadly there will be a next. And a next. And a next.” Influential people heard those words. Montana Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney and Attorney General Tim Fox among them. Both went on to fight hard for Montana Representative Rae Peppers legislation, Hanna’s Act, which, after gut-wrenching and unnecessary political wrangling, Governor Steve Bullock finally signed into Montana law.

What has been lacking at the state and federal level to counter the MMIWG epidemic is no secret. The status quo has been jurisdictional paralysis through a total failure in interagency coordination between federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies. This has resulted in completely inadequate data collection and distribution, and no effective protocols to deal with the unique challenges of MMIW cases that reflect either the reservation or urban Indian community environments, and the unique law enforcement challenges presented in both. Life and death cannot wait for bureaucracy, which is why state action such as Hanna’s Act, House Bill 1713 in Washington, House Bill 2570 in Arizona, Senate Bill 164 in South Dakota, and the bills in North Dakota introduced by Representative Ruth Buffalo are essential.

Cante Heart, Nikkole Bostnar and Sunny Red Bear of MMIW He Sapa at the US Supreme Court.

Across the country, indigenous officials elected to state legislatures are now proactively leading. In my home state of Wyoming, Governor Mark Gordon just committed to enact what will be the strongest MMIW executive order yet implemented. This is a glimpse into what we can achieve if we respect each other and each other’s work. It is important for those of us who work with the families of sex trafficking and missing and murdered indigenous victims to demonstrate unity and to avoid lateral violence within the Native community, in all aspects of the MMIW struggle.

Vice President Darla Black, Oglala Sioux Tribe.

At the federal level, the tribal alliance of the RMTLC, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA), and the Global Indigenous Council (GIC) has been at the forefront of recent efforts to secure meaningful legislation to combat the MMIW epidemic. Three bills introduced this year by Senators Murkowski, Udall, Smith and Cortez-Masto incorporate recommendations made by the GIC-RMTLC-GPTCA alliance. In February 2019, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), introduced the Studying the Missing and Murdered Indian Crisis Act. This legislative call for the Government Accountability Office to conduct a full review of how federal agencies respond to reports of missing and murdered Native Americans and recommend solutions based on their findings, originated with the RMTLC. In April 2019, Senator Tester and Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) committed to championing the GIC-RMTLC-GPTCA amendments to Savanna’s Act and to fulfilling that commitment by securing the inclusion of those amendments in the final bill. Our amendments were previously supported by the bills original sponsor, former senator, Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), and in the House, by Congressman Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), and Congresswomen Sharice Davids (D-KS) and Deb Haaland (D-NM).

Congresswoman Haaland was the first Member of Congress to endorse our national MMIW billboard campaign that launched in January. Vice President Darla Black of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, formerly a twenty-year law enforcement veteran, has spoken of the campaign’s significance. “I think this campaign is critical – critical; not just to us in South Dakota, but to the entire United States and Canada. It’s critical because this is not just happening to indigenous women here, it’s happening everywhere,” said Vice President Black. At the RMTLC MMIW event on January 30 with Montana State legislators, we saw the positive impact the billboards have for MMIW survivors and victims’ families. Lili Ann Tatsey was among those, and Lili Ann shared her cousin’s story, the as-yet unsolved tragedy of Ashley Loring Heavy Runner, who went missing June 12, 2017, on the Blackfeet Nation. Lili Ann read a statement from Ashley’s sister, Kimberly, that concluded with, “Unfortunately, Ashley’s story is not unique, but the same as many other MMIW. Ashley had dreams and she had goals; being a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman was not one of them. Don’t forget Ashley, remember her name. Ashley Heavy Runner Loring is important. Our people are important.”

Lili Ann Tatsey, cousin of Ashley Loring Heavy Runner.

Lili Ann took our billboard displays home with her to keep the focus of the community on Ashley and the MMIW epidemic. Yes, remember Ashely’s name. Remember all their names. The work goes on. The silenced will have a voice. As indigenous women, we are invisible no more. Today we have a National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. Tomorrow we will have justice.


Lynette Grey Bull is Senior Vice President of Global Indigenous Council and the founder of Not Our Native Daughters. In 2017, Lynette provided statistics and research on missing and exploited Native women and children for the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. She previously served as Chair of the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs at the Governor’s office, and on the Arizona Governor’s Human Trafficking Task Force.

Photos courtesy of Alter-Native Media.

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