Silent Epidemic

Image: "Still Dancing" by Jonathan Labillois, a member of the Ljonpaintistuguj Migmaq First Nation Band in Gaspe Quebec

O Si Yo, (Oh See Yo) ‘Hello’ in my mother’s language of Cherokee and welcome to this month’s blog.

What if I told you there was an epidemic in Indian County? Would you believe me? Probably not unless I could provide some data, statistics, documentation or proof that the epidemic exists. What if I told you this epidemic causes death rates for Native Americans ten times higher than the national average?[1] The epidemic I am referring to is Native American women and girls who are murdered and/or missing in Indian Country.

Reports from the U.S. Department of Justice confirm that Native women and girls are victimized at rates far higher than their non-native counterparts. Yet, data on the numbers of those who have gone missing or have been murdered has never been officially collected.[2]  As a result of lacking casework and documentation, to my knowledge at present in 2017, total numbers of Native American women and girls murdered and missing in Indian Country are unknown. However, we do have an insight into what the numbers could resemble if we look at the latest data from our First Nation neighbors in Canada. 

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report from May 2014, titled “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview”, states there are 1,181 documented cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada from 1980 to 2012. This is equivalent to 36 First Nation females going missing and or being murdered per year; or a rate of 3 victims per month.  Further, there are currently 225 unsolved cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.[3] 

Recently, two senators and one representative from the state of Montana have introduced a Congressional Resolution that would designate May 5th as a National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls.[4]  Here in Oklahoma, there are plans for groups of tribal and non-tribal citizens to meet at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Saturday, May 6, 2017, to raise awareness of missing and/or murdered native women.

You and I share the desire for all in our communities to be safe. We want our tribal sovereignty and our communities to be strong, and we want our families to be healthy. As I speak of this issue today, I recognize that we are only in the beginning stage of addressing the complex and urgent needs which face our citizens, tribal law enforcement, and other child protection professionals to whom we look for help-we must work to more fully understand, and more swiftly and comprehensively address, this assault upon the women and girls of our tribal and native communities. We are still in the early stages of the general public becoming aware of what I am calling an epidemic.

I would like to share with you a simple formula for addressing problems or finding solutions that I learned during my study of counseling. First, become aware that there actually is a problem. Secondly, acknowledge that the issue does exist. Thirdly, look for and list out all possible actions that can be taken to eliminate the issue. And lastly, choose one or more of the possible actions and then take action! 

In this epidemic of missing and murdered native women and girls in Indian Country my thoughts are that it is time, if not past time, to go through the formula above. Are we now aware that the problem of missing and murdered girls and women is extremely serious? Do we acknowledge that these cases do exist? Do we need to start identifying and listing out all possible actions that can be taken? What action(s) will we choose to address and eliminate the epidemic?

Recently the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) passed its own resolution, supporting the Congressional Resolution proposed by Montana legislators mentioned earlier (designating May 5th as National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls). NCAI’s resolution includes an action plan involving the review, revision, and creation of law enforcement and justice protocols appropriate to the disappearance of Native women and girls, including those which address inter-jurisdictional issues. 

NCAI also suggested that there be a means to provide increased and improved victim services to families and community members impacted by disappearance or murder of their loved ones, such as counseling for left-behind children, burial assistance, and community walks and healing ceremonies. Additionally, the NCAI advocates for the coordination of efforts across federal departments to increase the response to these incidents; and for improvement in the manner in which they coordinate and consult with Indian tribes in their efforts to increase the response of state governments, where appropriate, to cases of disappearance or murder of Native women or girls[5]

We are all jointly invested in working together to protect and promote the safety and well-being of our population. Again, please know we here at AMBER Alert in Indian Country will partner with you to discover information and find inspiration, through the sharing of ideas, efforts undertaken, and lessons learned.

I and my AMBER Alert in Indian Country colleagues look forward to sharing our experiences with you, and more importantly, learning from you and your community as we venture forward together.

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There is no word for good bye in our language. What we say is Do Na Da Go huh I (Doe Naw Daw Go Huh ee).