6 years after the first horrific stories broke into mainstream news/media, MMIW fully stands on its own commanding and demanding attention. Two frustrations I’ve had in reading on the epidemic are 1) my own ignorance on the topic and 2) the lack of uniformity of information being conveyed.
Below I look at the standard process of reporting a missing person so I can contrast it with the process of reporting a missing indigenous woman which brings to the surface why this crisis leaves indigenous woman so prone to fall through systematically instituted cracks.
WHAT DOES THE PROCESS LOOK LIKE?
The information below is an outsider’s look at the mechanisms that activate if someone were to go missing from my life.
When a non-indigenous person goes missing, generally, the first question is what qualifies as a “missing person” since being missing or falling out of contact is not illegal.
This determination considers a totality of the circumstances style test taking into account age, mental capacity, medical conditions, and status of their disappearance (suspicious / during or after a natural disaster, ect). It is fully within the police officer’s discretion to determine the proper way to investigate. Officers use technology (social media) to confirm or contradict information provided. At this point, there is typically an “attempt to locate” prior to declaring someone missing.
Once someone meets the critical mass to be considered a “missing person” they are entered into a national database, namus.gov, to put more jurisdictions on notice. Read More
- NamUs reports 72 open missing persons cases, 64 resolved missing person cases, 18 open unidentified persons cases, and 12 resolved unidentified persons cases in Montana as of March 12, 2019.
- Montana’s Department of Justice currently reports there are 144 missing persons.
- Finally, a third, voluntary database called the Missing and Endangered Person Advisory (MEPA) requires the requesting agency to enter the person into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) using the proper message key: Missing (MNP), Endangered (EME), Involuntary (EMI).
When an indigenous woman goes missing …
First, some background on why indigenous women are more vulnerable to go missing in the first place. Keeping this framing very basic, tribes generally cannot prosecute non-indigenous people. This lack of capacity to act opens up holes in justice specifically when non-indigenous actors can commit crimes in Indian Country and not be held accountable.
The process/procedure of reporting a missing indigenous woman is logistically more complex and less zealously pursued than another missing person report. Additionally, even the scant numbers show that indigenous women are grossly overrepresented based upon the percentage they make up of Montana’s population (indigenous women are 10% of the missing when they constitute only 3.3% of Montana’s population (source); 36% of missing children are American Indian (source)).
Generally, the first question is often which governmental entity has jurisdiction to take action. More likely than not, it is not local law enforcement due to both the largely rural, underfunded nature and uniquely limiting legal enforcement structures in Indian Country. It is much more likely that the FBI, DEA, or BIA are the proper authorities, but officers of those entities are far and few between. This bureaucratic riddle means instant delays in action.
Typically weeks after an initial report, the authorities consider is this situation one that rises to the status of a “missing person”. A similar totality of circumstances test is administered at the discretion of the lead enforcement officer. Enter deeply-rooted, caustic bias about the nomadic, loose, alcoholic tendencies of native culture. These corrosive stereotypes undermine determinations made about age, mental capacity, medical conditions, and status of disappearance assessment.
- The best database that exists for MMIW started as an academic project by a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge.
- NamUs, Montana DOJ, and voluntary MEPA/NCIC also include incomplete cross-sections of information on missing indigenous women.
WHAT IS BEING DONE, HERE, NOW
US 2017 Session / Savanna’s Act – This bill requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to update the online data entry format for federal databases relevant to cases of missing and murdered Indians to include a new data field for users to input the victim’s tribal enrollment information or affiliation. Status = 12/10/2018 held at the desk while before the House.
2018 State-Tribal Relations Committee Final Report Addressing an Epidemic: Missing and Murdered Indian Women
Montana’s 2019 Session / Hanna’s Act – This bill would require the Department of Justice to employ a missing persons specialist to assist with all county, state, municipal, and tribal law enforcement agencies in pursuing missing person cases. Status = Passed the House on 02/19/2019; Senate Hearing 03/12/2019.
Reflecting on what this very superficial dive into Montana’s MMIW, I’ve mitigated some of my own ignorance (but my engagement with this topic does NOT end here) and brought profound clarity to my second frustration. It fundamentally doesn’t matter to me anymore that the numbers vary from resource to resource for that is the very nature of data-collection; the heartbreaking reality is that one missing life if one too many. That is the only number that matters.