A National Vigil Honoring Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls

“Native women experience violence at higher rates than any other population of women, barriers embedded in U.S. law and policy make it harder for them to get prosecutors and courts to act. It is a legal framework that was created to fail us. The crisis of missing and murdered Native women and girls is an extension of this system.”—Caroline LaPorte, NIWRC Senior Native Affairs Advisor (center). Also pictured speakers at the vigil Carmen O’Leary, Executive Director, Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains (left) and Leanne Guy, Executive Director, Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition (right).

Advocates, tribal leaders, tribal coalitions, allies, and the general public gathered in the Nation’s capital at the National Museum of the American Indian on September 11, to honor Native women and girls who are missing or who have been murdered. The candlelight vigil included a shawl ceremony, a drum circle, and heartfelt prayers. The event was intended as a moment of healing, one where advocates and leaders could come together and pray for a solution to this crisis that many of their communities must constantly confront.

“The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center organized the vigil in the hope that it will continue to be replicated across tribal communities and will mobilize grassroots tribal advocates, tribal leaders, Members of Congress, and staffers towards drafting and implementing legislation that addresses the full breadth of violence against Native women,” said Lucy Simpson, Director, NIWRC. “It is essential that Congress find a way to assist tribes in the protection of Native women and girls. Tribes, as sovereigns, are in the best position to care for their people and this care must include the ability to prosecute non-Natives for violence committed on tribal land.”

Speakers at the event included: Representative Gwen Moore, NCAI Task Force Co-Chair Juana Majel Dixon, Caroline LaPorte, Mary Katherine Nagle, Leanne Guy, Carmen O’Leary, and Florence Choyou, the mother of a Hopi woman who was murdered.

The need to educate federal partners, Members of Congress, allies and the general public on gender-based violence issues in tribal communities is timely. The Violence Against Women Act, which includes necessary protections for American Indians and Alaska Natives, would have expired September 30, 2018 but is currently funded through December 7 as part of the continuing resolution passed by Congress. Movement has been made, including a 2018 Reauthorization bill from Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, which includes provisions to address the crisis of missing and murdered, but Native women experience particular vulnerabilities that make a delay of passage problematic. Native women are incredibly vulnerable, experiencing violence at astronomical rates:

More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women (84.3%) have experienced violence in their lifetime, including:
• 56.1% who have experienced sexual violence
• 55.5% who have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner
• 48.4% who have experienced stalking
• 66.4% who have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner (NIJ, 2016).

For the 56.1% of Native women who reported having experienced sexual violence, those same women also reported that 96% of this violence was perpetrated by at least one non-Native perpetrator.

This is relevant due to Supreme Court Decision, Oliphant v. Suquamish (1978), which had the effect of prohibiting tribal governments from prosecuting non-natives for crimes they commit on tribal lands. Advocates and tribal leaders continue to call for a full Oliphant fix in order to address the crisis of missing and murdered, as well as to address other forms of gender-based violence that Native women experience.

“In 1978, our Tribal Nations were stripped of our inherent jurisdiction to protect our own citizens on tribal lands. But we weren’t stripped of our voices. We stand together to speak out and honor the sisters, mothers, aunties and friends we have lost. And we pledge to do all that we can to restore the jurisdiction that has been taken away.”
—Mary Katherine Nagle, Partner, Pipestem Law