Content warning: This article contains references to graphic violence.
5,712 — this is the number of cases of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) reported in 2016 in the U.S. According to many reports, this statistic is an underestimation of the actual number of MMIW.
UC Santa Cruz’s American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) hosted an event on May 6 to commemorate and bring awareness to the issue of MMIW. The AIRC invited Native-identifying speakers who shared personal experiences and statistics regarding the crisis of MMIW. This was an opportunity for UCSC students to engage in conversation and learn more about this underreported issue.
“[MMIW] is really impacting my valley because a lot of these events take place on reservations and people are asking ‘How do we combat this? How do we try and make it not affect us as much it is?” said third-year Taylor Gravier. “It’s something that has been going on for a really long time and it’s really complex.”
Gravier is from the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Mendocino County. She has seen the effects of MMIW first hand. Khadijah Britton, a resident of the same reservation, has been missing since February 2018. The family suspects that Britton’s boyfriend was responsible for her disappearance — a week before she went missing, Britton reported that her boyfriend had tried killing her with a hammer.
“It really leaves a mark on you, especially as a Native woman,” Gravier said. “You ask yourself, ‘am I next? Are my friends next? My sisters? My aunts? My cousins?’”
A report by the National Institute for Justice indicates that 84 percent of Native American women in the U.S. have experienced violence in their lifetimes. Indigenous women are murdered at 10 times the national average.
Search efforts to find Britton were organized primarily by family and friends who conducted search parties and started Facebook pages in support of Britton, Gravier said. The actual number of MMIW is unknown because of underfunding and the federal government’s perceived indifference toward this crisis. Of the 5,712 cases of MMIW from 2016, only 2 percent of cases were logged into the Department of Justice database.
“A lot of these crimes take place in and around reservations and as a consequence of that, there’s a lot of jurisdiction issues,” said AIRC director Rebecca Hernandez. “If a non-Native person commits a crime on a reservation, the tribal police have no authority over them. Oftentimes people with malicious intent […] end up going onto reservations committing these crimes and leaving because they know there is very little consequence for that behavior.”
The MMIW event was an important place for discussion and exposure to Native American issues across the country. For change to begin, people need to know that a problem exists, said AIRC intern Rennea Howell.
“There’s been erasure and genocide against Native peoples since first contact and it’s been perpetuated through stereotypes that also reinforce the idea that Native women don’t matter as much as they do,” Howell said. “It’s through systematic degradation of what it means to be Native and loss of sacredness surrounding women that this violence has been permitted to continue.”
UCSC’s Native American population is only 0.8 percent. Events like the MMIW are meant to help Native American students on campus feel included and raise campus awareness on Native American issues.
The Ethnic Resource Center hung red dresses symbolizing Native infants and adults that have been killed or have gone missing. Organizers hope the movement will continue to facilitate conversations on this important issue.
“Something that I have and always will admire about indigenous women is their strength,” Taylor Gravier said. “They constantly stand up and show me that no matter what, we will always come back up and show the world what we’re made of.”