A few weeks ago at a town hall meeting about the AAUU survey results, I learned that almost 50 percent of Native women have been sexually assaulted at Yale. In this way, we see violence against Native women occurring on our own campus, against our own friends. Beyond campus, violence occurs at an alarming rate.
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is both a crisis and a movement. Indigenous women and girls from around the country are disappearing, are being murdered and are rendered silent and invisible by state and federal governments. Throughout history, Indigenous women have been hypersexualized, fetishized and exoticized by colonial powers. Since the beginning of the colonial project in North America, the rise of heteropatriarchy created a system of violence and oppression for Indigenous women. For example, one of the first Indigenous women that people hear about growing up is Pocahontas, a Native woman who was sex trafficked and forced to convert to Christianity.
Today, this violence has continued and escalated. On many reservations, 96 percent of Native women experience sexual violence, which is 10 times higher than the national average. In 2016, the number of known incidents of missing and murdered Indigenous women stood at almost 6,000, and this number has only grown.
The majority of these crimes are committed by non-Native people, not our community members. Over time, the American government has systematically attacked tribal jurisdiction over sexual crimes. Native nations have little jurisdiction over sexual crimes that non-Native people commit, even if it is on their sovereign territory. This creates a situation in which white men are not held accountable for their violent actions against Native women and girls because they are largely exempt from tribal criminal jurisdiction. The federal government is tasked with investigating these crimes but fails in that regard too; the government declines to prosecute 70 percent of these cases.
This gender violence occurs as the result of a legacy of disenfranchising tribal laws and policies, indoctrination and assimilation. The task of bringing perpetrators to justice is daunting because of the tangled legal web of jurisdiction and the federal government’s unwillingness to seek justice, which comes as no surprise considering the foundations of this country.
It is essential that we understand Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women as not a singular crisis, but as part of the broader settler-colonial project that seeks to undermine Indigenous sovereignty, erase Indigenous cultures and histories and rewrite American history as one of bravery and equality instead of one of enslavement, genocide and capitalism. While thousands of women and girls feel pain, go missing and die, the U.S. government watches and does absolutely nothing. Violence against Native women only serves the settler-colonial nation that wishes to see the end of Indigeneity in its borders. This is just another way that we are rendered invisible, that we are blamed and that we are sexualized. We cannot understand the United States, environmental racism, capitalism and trafficking without acknowledging Indigenous oppression. I also want to note that trans and Black Indigenous women face these violences at the highest rate of all, and it is important to recognize the effects of settlers’ abuses on sexuality and gender expression.
The families of these missing women and girls are often tasked with doing the work to search for them. I want us to think about this — that the family and community members, who should have the space to take time, process and grieve, are forced to do this work alone. These women and girls held important roles in their communities. They made decisions, they held spots on tribal council, they worked to revitalize our languages and they carried knowledge and memory. Aside from that, they were human beings who were treated with horrific levels of racism and violence.
When I think about the MMIW crisis, I am often filled with sadness and despair. But I am not hopeless — Indigenous women are not broken. We have created a movement that spans across borders, across communities and across governments. We have marched time and time again. We demand a national database of missing women, the return of jurisdiction back to Native governments, support for communities, social media organizing and broader political and social awareness of this fight. Ultimately, we are demanding our self-authority and inherent sovereignty, our women and girls and our land back. We will not forget these women and girls, and we will never back down. We are drawing attention to this in North America, but this issue permeates transnationally and across all borders.
I, along with the Association of Native Americans at Yale, am not going to stand by here and let the United States continue this injustice. This stands as a call for action for non-Native allies to think critically about your positionality and to make this crisis a priority in your own movements for justice. If you don’t, you’re perpetuating the same erasure and oppression that we already face.
At the dinner for Indigenous Peoples’ Day this past fall, I spoke about the need for stronger action than land acknowledgements. I asked you to make our truths your truths, to make our struggles your struggles. I want you to spend some time thinking about this, and I am once again asking you to make this your truth and make this the struggle you fight against. Today, I am asking us to pay respect and honor these women and girls. Beyond today, I am asking you to remember my words and think of both local and non-local Indigenous communities that are facing this crisis on an everyday basis. And to the women and girls that we have lost too soon, I want to say: We love you. We are here for you. We see you and are fighting for you. We are never going to forget about you, and we are never going to back down.
MEGHANLATA GUPTA is a junior in Morse College. She is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians and president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .