Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: An Epidemic

Countless cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women have been reported by Indigenous communities but have not made headlines. The following personal accounts come from those reports.

It is April 18, 2017 and residents of a neighborhood in Lumberton, North Carolina have just discovered the naked body of Rhonda Jones stuffed in a trashcan. Rhonda was a thirty-six year old woman and member of the Lumbee Tribe. Only a few hours had passed when Christina Bennett, another member of the Lumbee Tribe, was also found dead at a nearby abandoned house. In an effort to help, Rhonda’s friend and fellow Lumbee Tribe member, Megan Oxendine offered to be interviewed by police regarding the murders of her dear friend and acquaintance. But just three weeks later, Megan’s body was discovered a few blocks away from where Rhonda and Christina’s bodies were found. Nearly six years have passed since these women were murdered and all three of their cases remain unsolved. Unfortunately, their cases are not unique, as the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates there are 4,200 cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) that remain unsolved.

Faith Hedgepeth was a 19 year old sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill who had dreams of being a pediatrician or a teacher. Faith was found beaten, bloodied, and murdered in her apartment one morning in Warren County, North Carolina. Nine years later, the investigation is still ongoing.

Sara Nicole Graham was killed on her way to work, and her van was abandoned in a field in Pembroke, North Carolina. Eight years later, the case remains unsolved.

Katina Locklear was bringing food to the homeless just a few days before Christmas. Before she made it there, Katina was killed at the end of a dirt road and her body left next to a drainage ditch. Three years later, the case remains unsolved.

These are the stories of Indigenous women who are murdered at a rate ten times the national average. The epidemic of violence towards Indigenous women has spread across the country, touching every tribe in America. The crisis is happening in plain sight yet for some inconceivable reason is largely ignored. “Lumbee [T]ribe members say they feel invisible, as law enforcement and legislators have turned a blind eye to the [MMIW] crisis in their backyard.” Currently, MMIW face no promised path to justice. The legal landscape for Indigenous women is flawed and their communities are begging for change.

Rates of Violence Toward Indigenous Women vs. White Women

The statistical comparisons of violence and threats towards Indigenous women versus white women present a haunting reality. 84.3% of Indigenous women are physically assaulted in their lifetime compared to 51.3% of white women. 56.1% of Indigenous women experience sexual violence in their lifetime compared to 17.7% of white women. 48.8% of Indigenous women have been stalked in their lifetime compared to 8.2% of white women. While these rates may be shocking, they are not without explanation. One possible reason for the large discrepancies is that Indigenous women do not receive as much legal protection as non-Indigenous women. Jurisdiction over these cases varies between the Federal government, State government and tribes, depending on who the victim is and who the assailant is. In 2016, only 116 of the 5,712 reported cases (two percent) of MMIW were entered into the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) database. Reasons for this lack of reporting include community distrust of law enforcement and inadequate communication between the DOJ and tribal communities.

Legislation Introduced as a Response to Alarming Trends in Indigenous Communities

Indigenous women who are victimized by domestic violence often disappear, are abducted, or are murdered by their abusers. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) aims to strengthen local, state, tribal, and federal responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The VAWA of 2013 included stronger criminal laws against domestic violence and increased housing protections for victims. In March 2022, President Biden reauthorized VAWA and the new version broadened the scope of matters that tribes have authority to prosecute. Historically, tribes have not had jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indigenous perpetrators for committing crimes on tribal land. VAWA 2022 achieved bipartisan support and built on VAWA 2013 by “restoring tribes’ jurisdiction to prosecute non-[Indigenous] perpetrators of sexual violence, sex trafficking, stalking, child violence, assault of tribal justice personnel, and obstruction of justice on tribal lands.”

An additional law was enacted by the Biden Administration known as Savannah’s Act. This Act was implemented to improve federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement responsibilities with respect to MMIW and increase interagency communication and coordination when investigating crimes. The Act also requires consultations with tribal communities to improve data reporting and tribal access to federal databases.

On-going Barriers to Justice on Tribal Lands

The Violence Against Women Act and Savannah’s Act have been prominent legislative efforts to improve MMIW crime reporting and interagency coordination. However, the statutes are only valuable if they are properly enforced. After the laws were implemented, the Department of Justice and Department of the Interior law enforcement agencies responsible for enforcing the laws quickly fell behind on meeting the requirements and deadlines. Families of MMIW have experienced firsthand how understaffed law enforcement agencies are when called to investigate cases of Indigenous women. There have been instances where the  federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies have allegedly denied assisting in the investigation or have been said to fail to respond altogether.

“There are only 2,380 Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal uniformed officers available to serve an estimated 1.4 million people covering over 56 million acres of tribal lands,” which make up 560 different tribal governments and communities. To provide minimally acceptable service levels compared to off-reservation communities, tribal country is in need of 4,409 additional officers. Many reservations only have two to three officers available per shift. This is especially problematic for tribal lands like Navajo nation, which are similar in size to the state of West Virginia. In territories this large, tribal officers cover around 400 miles each. As a result, providing quick response times or having adequate back-up available has seemed impossible.

Without adequate personnel, tribal uniformed officers are believed to be severely handicapped in their law enforcement efforts. But, even in the areas with adequate law enforcement personnel, there have been reports of a lack of proper oversight to properly investigate MMIW cases.

The number of suspicious deaths of [Indigenous] women and girls that go uninvestigated despite an inordinate amount of evidence that a homicide has occurred is staggering…. Medical examiners, coroners, and prosecutors have wrongfully reported the cause of death of [Indigenous] women as undetermined, possible suicide, or hypothermia in order to quickly close the case…. In many cases, the remains are cremated before a full investigation can occur, at times without the family’s consent.

Glaring examples of the flagrant disregard for the lives of Indigenous women continue to be reported. The question of selective justice has been raised in the following cases where Indigenous women’s deaths and disappearances were never investigated and actions were taken against families’ wishes. Coroners as well as state, federal, and tribal law enforcement have been criticized for wrongdoing by Indigenous families. The families have voiced that there is no agency holding them accountable despite tribal calls for justice before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Reports of their personal stories continue.

The Families’ Stories. . .

Example 1: Christy Woodenthigh was hit and ran over by a car outside her home in March 2020 on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. When her family arrived a few hours later, they came across a large pool of blood on the road outside of her home, but no body. They expected to see officers at the scene, crime scene tape, commotion, panic . . . a response. But instead, no one was there; the neighborhood was quiet. No one had investigated the scene and Christy’s parents did not understand how this could be since the local police station was just a few miles away. Christy’s family called the police to request help at the scene and it took 45 minutes for just one officer to arrive. The officer did not get out of his car and only spoke to the family for 30 seconds before driving off. The officer did not provide Christy’s family with any more information, and he did not return. Christy was missing and likely dead.  The family was left alone, in shock, trying to figure out what happened to their beloved sister, daughter, and mother.

Example 2: In August 2019, Kaysera Crow was murdered in Big Horn County, Montana at just 18 years old. A few days before she went missing, Kaysera filmed and posted a video of Big Horn County Sheriff’s deputies beating her 15 year old wheelchair bound brother to social media. These would be the same deputies responsible for “investigating” her death. After her body was discovered by a jogger, the Big Horn County Sheriff’s deputies kept Kaysera’s body for two weeks before notifying her family. As of 2021, Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office, and the Montana Department of Justice had taken no action to begin a criminal investigation into her death. The FBI also failed to intervene, claiming it had no jurisdiction. Nevertheless, her “grandmother was told she died from a drug overdose, only to have the toxicology report come back with no indication of drug usage. Before a legitimate criminal investigation could be undertaken, the county coroner cremated Kaysera’s body against her family’s wishes.” Her family believes the cremation was completed quickly in order to destroy evidence. One can connect the dots and see that this is not simply a case that “slipped through the cracks” or which lacked resources. Many believe something more sinister is at play.

Example 3: Mackenzie Howard was a thirteen-year-old beaten to death and left naked to be found by a pastor’s wife. After a call for help, Mackenzie’s body laid in the back of a church for eleven hours before Alaska State Troopers arrived. The case highlights the effects of insufficient law enforcement resources. In this remote community that is only accessible by air or boat, the closest state troopers were 114 miles away.

Example 4: When Hanna Harris went missing in July 2013, the Bureau of Indian Affairs police told her mother she was probably out partying, and that she could go search for Hanna herself. In many cases, police do not take MMIW reports seriously. The most common complaints received by the FBI are from families like Hanna’s saying they are missing a loved one but cannot find a law enforcement agency to take their report.

Example 5: In Northern Cheyenne, the mother of Allison Highwolf was denied the ability to view the remains of her daughter. Allison’s family knows this is the common result of a death that has occurred under suspicious circumstances. Officers told her family that she died from smoke inhalation from a fire of unclear origin. The medical examiner’s report indicated the manner of death was undetermined but suggested suicide. The facts do not appear to match up; Allison’s case is one of countless others where families are pleading for full investigations of unexplained deaths.

The opportunity for crimes against Indigenous women is rampant in remote areas like Alaska where villages face limited access to law enforcement. A retired magistrate judge in Kake, Alaska said,

The police sometimes take days or weeks to arrive. However, if you shoot a moose outside of moose season, a state trooper will knock on our door within [two] hours and break it down if you do not answer… When Alaska became a state, it swore that everyone would have equal access to all state resources, but that is not happening. Even though the federal government transfers plenty of funding to the state, those funds are not passed down to the villages.

Uncovering Systemic Issues

When most people think of Civil Rights Act violations, they think of high-profile cases such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, where investigations were conducted by local law enforcement. However, the Civil Rights Act applies in much broader contexts.

Just as local law enforcement agencies have exhibited discrimination by systemically and routinely targeting people of color with unlawful acts of violence, Indigenous families are calling America’s attention to see the systemic and routine practice of not investigating or prosecuting many of the individuals who murder Indigenous women.

One example brought forward as a systemic failure of law enforcement to act occurred in Missoula, Montana, where many Indigenous people reside. In May 2012, an investigation was opened into three different law enforcement entities by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. The 2012 findings identified “a pattern or practice of failing to adequately respond to and investigate allegations of sexual assault against women.” In February 2014, the DOJ identified, “a pattern or practice of failing to ensure unbiased effective investigation and prosecution of reports of sexual assault [made] by women.” Investigations by the DOJ have raised the attention of the public to hold law enforcement entities accountable. The Civil Rights Division issued a letter to the County Attorney of Missoula, Montana, which included 20 pages of examples of the county’s bias and investigative shortcomings. The letter simply urged the county to remedy the situation. Nine years have passed, and no serious legal action has been taken against Missoula, Montana law enforcement for their bias and inaction. Tribal leaders expressed how shameful the systematic failure is and have called on Congress to take additional action.

On top of this injustice, tribal prosecutors have been forced to be selective in deciding which defendants to charge because they do not have enough resources or space available in detention facilities. When tribal detention centers reach maximum capacity, tribes are faced with prematurely releasing detainees to make room. This could mean having to choose between releasing a sexual offender or a murderer, in order to make room for another sexual offender or murderer, or not arresting the subsequent offender at all.

Indigenous women across the United States face a high risk of violence and live without the comfort and certainty of knowing that law enforcement will show up for them when needed. The stories of unsolved Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women cases, statistics of rising violence towards Indigenous women, and the reports of interagency failures to respond to calls for help are jarring. With legislative and resource driven changes to increase law enforcement presence and hold these agencies more accountable, Indigenous women could face a new reality that they deserve. They are calling for our help.

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About Virginia Walker (2 Articles)
Ginny is a third-year law student at Campbell University School of Law and is a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Ginny attended UNC-Wilmington where she received her undergraduate Business Marketing degree. Following undergraduate studies, Ginny worked in banking for three years where she helped small business owners. Since beginning law school, Ginny completed an externship at the Bankruptcy Court as well as internships for several business law firms. Currently, Ginny works as an Estate Planning and Fiduciary Law Research Assistant. Her primary interests include trust and estate law, advising start-ups, and transactional business law.