On April 25, the U.S. Senate declared May 5, 2018, the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. The resolution was introduced by Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) in honor of Hanna Harris, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, whose birthday is on May 5. She went missing in 2013; when her remains were found, authorities discovered that she had been raped and murdered.
Missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) is an epidemic in North America. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate of 10 times the national average, and four out of five Native women have experienced violence in their lives. In 2016, there were more than 5,700 known incidents of missing and murdered Indigenous women reported to the National Crime Information Center, according to Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). Although, as Heitkamp pointed out, due to unreported cases and misclassification, it’s possible the actual number is higher.
Sexual assault is a major issue for native women, and is sometimes a factor in these disappearances and killings. As High Country Newsreported, 2010 data from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey indicates that more than half of Native women have experienced some form of sexual violence. Unlike other groups who primarily experience sexual violence from a member of their own race, Native women are more likely to be sexually victimized by non-Natives. Among American Indian and Alaska Native women who have been raped or sexually assaulted, 86% described the offender as non?Native, according to a previously reported stat recently cited by a National Congress of American Indians policy paper. For Native women, the threats of kidnapping, murder, and sexual assault are often linked, especially in their advocacy work on behalf of themselves.
Earth-Feather Sovereign, a member of the Okanogan and Sanpoil bands of the Colville Confederated Tribes and a Washington state resident, organized a prayer walk for the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. A group of Native women met with First Nations women from Canada in Blaine, Washington, at the Peace Arch, which is on the border of the United States and Canada.
“We need to decolonize our way of thinking that the U.S. and Canada’s issues with missing and murdered Indigenous people are separate and different,” Earth-Feather tells Teen Vogue about her views on the National Day of Awareness. “We need to unite and find ways to help protect our people.”
The MMIW Prayer Walk Earth-Feather organized that began May 5 will cross Washington state, passing through Seattle on May 11 and ending in Olympia on May 13.
The State of Washington has been leading the way in recognizing the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in America and is taking steps to deal with the problem. Washington state’s House Bill 2951, which was recently signed into law, requires state patrol to study how state and tribal law enforcement should work together with tribes and urban Native organizations, as well as the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, to better identify and report cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women within the state.
On April 30, the City Council of Seattle issued a proclamation that similarly recognized May 5 as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Awareness Day. It was written by several Native women and sponsored by council member Debora Juarez.
Other communities across the continent also held rallies and marches on Saturday. A rally in Rapid City, South Dakota, highlighted local MMIW cases. A MMIW march was held on Yakama Nation lands, and another march for missing and murdered Indigenous women was held in Fargo, North Dakota. Native leadership also convened on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to discuss the impact of the fossil fuel industry on the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and concerns they have about Keystone XL pipeline construction adjacent to tribal lands, in particular.
Sen. Heitkamp has also been pushing to bring MMIW to light through her social media campaign, #NotInvisible, and by introducing Savannah’s Act, a bill written to build on the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act by mandating that the federal government work with tribes to improve their access to the federal National Crime Information Center database, according to Indianz.com.
While fighting the MMIW epidemic seems daunting, Earth-Feather Sovereign exemplifies the hopeful attitude you’ll find in many Native activists working to protect Indigenous people. “Every step and action we take has a spiritual meaning,“ Earth-Feather says. “We are walking with our ancestors behind us, and our Creator before us. Healing within our communities needs to begin