Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls

By the Rev. Suzanne Wenonah Duchesne

“Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is not an Indigenous issue – it’s a human issue.”    —RagghiRain, Eastern Cherokee

The #MeToo movement has brought attention to the staggering number of women who have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime. The pain and emotional toll are unimaginable, not to mention the loss of income due to lifelong challenges and the generational impact on families as women struggle to survive and heal.

When those numbers are placed under a statistical magnifying glass an even clearer and more sinister picture appears. An analysis of the Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) reveals that rates of rape and other sexual assaults are higher for American Indian and Alaska Native women compared to both African American and white women (Bachman et al. 2008). 

If that isn’t enough, the maze of jurisdictional authorities that must be negotiated to bring charges and the shame associated with these crimes means that these reported numbers are under representative of the true situation.

National Institute of Justice researchers found that more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women, or 84.3%, had experienced some form of violence in their lifetimes:

  • 66.4% experienced psychological violence.
  • 56.1% experienced sexual violence.
  • 55.5% experienced physical violence from an intimate partner.
  • 48.8% experienced stalking (Rosay 2016).

Despite the need for support and protection from this violence, 38% of Alaska Native and American Indian women were unable to access services such as medical, legal, and other services (Rosay, 3).

The report also found that, amongst the women who reported experiencing violence in their lifetimes, 97% of victims experienced violence by an interracial perpetrator (Rosay, 46).  NVAWS (National Violence Against Women Survey) data indicate that the vast majority of these “lifetime” reports were, in fact, for victimizations that occurred in childhood (Bachman et al, 42).  To arrive at these statistics, the NCVS interviewed an average of 80,000 individuals annually, during 1992-2005, that were 12 years of age and older (Bachman et al, 32).

Read that again: Interviewers asked questions of individuals 12 years of age. In a California study researchers found that 81% of women in their sample had experienced some form of violence in childhood (under the age of 18), and 80% of women had experienced some form of violence since adulthood (after the age of 18) (Bachman et al, 55).

Overall, more than 1.5 million American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime (Rosay,  2). Indigenous women are more likely to be murdered with a rate up to 10 times the national average (Bachman et al,  5).

Borne out of the violence of colonization, forced relocations, and eroded sovereignty, the murder, rape, and trafficking of Indigenous women and youth is a crisis that can no longer be ignored.

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I experienced all the aspects of the pain and the hard work of trying to find healing. Except for one very important and multifaceted aspect:  I did not have to contend with the effects of colonization. 

As a non-Native white settler living on this continent, known by many as Turtle Island, I have had the benefit of white privilege which opened up avenues of therapy and support many of my Indigenous sisters do not have.

The dignity and honor, once an integral part of the values of many Native nations, were stripped from women by colonizers who could not understand matrilineal societies and viewed the world through a patriarchal lens. These explorers and later colonists sought out land and more land and the manpower to work the land. They used up the land and the inhabitants and spit them out. 

The psychic and spiritual ruptures in the minds and souls of individuals from these generational experiences take their toll. But this is not just a problem steeped in the historical trauma of Native peoples. The problem is inculcated in the very laws of this country—codified and systematized—creating an almost impossible net which captures a victim of these crimes and holds her fast from being able to find justice. Women who make their way through these mazes are truly courageous. 

The Northeast Jurisdiction of the Native American Ministry Committee of The United Methodist Church (pictured above) has taken on the challenge to acknowledge, educate, and advocate for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and their families as part of our work over the next year.

As we seek to honor and to remember our Native Sisters I would hope that all United Methodists might join us. As RagghiRain so eloquently put it “Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is not an Indigenous issue; it’s a human issue.” 

This is an opportunity to make a difference. I pray that we choose to act with the recognition not only of their victimization but also of the courage it takes for Native Women to fight back.

I invite all Methodist non-Natives to engage in some accountability and take up the challenge to fight back with them. For more information visit our website at nejnamc.org

Rev. Dr. Suzanne Wenonah Duchesne, PhD, is the pastor of First UMC Perkasie and Communications, and member of the Eastern PA Conference Committee on Native American Ministry (CONAM), and Chairperson of the Northeast Jurisdiction Native American Ministries Committee. She also teaches Pastoral Theology at Moravian Theological Seminary