Content Warning: This editorial mentions gendered and sexual violence towards Indigenous women, as well as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) campaigns.
A sea of red greets tourists’ eyes as red dresses are laid out on the warm sands of Waikiki Beach in Hawai’i. Elsewhere, red dresses hang from trees in backyards, forests, and parks. Some choose to paint their palms red as an act of resistance — and remembrance.
Each dress is meant to symbolize an Indigenous woman or girl who has either gone missing or been murdered. Their looming presence is a reminder of our grim reality — at least 5,712 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls went missing in 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center.
That same year, the U.S. Department of Justice only logged 116 cases. Thousands of women and girls are still unaccounted for, and many more have gone missing since.
For Native communities, the process for reporting a missing person is complicated by tensions between tribal, federal, and state jurisdictions. Unclear twists and turns elongate the process, meaning trails may run cold before attention is paid to any given case.
Many will have been missing for months before someone with legal power makes any sort of decision to go and find them.
Indigenous communities like the Yurok Tribe in Northern California are calling this a state of emergency. In July 2020, Sovereign Bodies Institute’s database for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) reported that 165 individuals in California had gone missing since 1900. The next year, the number had risen to 183. The institute’s report also stated that this was still a major undercount.
In other words, over 1.5 million Native women have experienced some form of gendered violence in their lifetime.
And these are just the women who report. Native women are just as likely to experience retaliation from abusers or assaulters for reporting gendered, sexual, or domestic violence. Centering survivors in this context means centering the experiences of Indigenous women.
When we pay attention to the struggles of Indigenous women, we see how different forms of oppression affect those who exist at the intersections of different identities.
Indigenous women have been subject to sexual violence from European colonizers for hundreds of years, and practices of gendered Indigenous subjugation remain present in today’s society.
Indigenous women’s continued marginalization exacerbates what is already true — women without external material support from others are less likely to report gendered violence or leave abusive situations, women without community are more likely to go missing, and women without either live their lives most at risk.
The scale of negligence and apathy from our general population about the ongoing suffering of Indigenous people is a continuation of both settler colonial and patriarchal legacies that remain pervasive in our societal structures today.
In order to understand why and how so many Indigenous women and girls go missing, it is important for us to connect these longstanding histories of violence together. Though May 5 is the designated date of remembrance for MMIWG, our commitment to remembering and protecting Indigenous women should go beyond just the one day.
We should feel the absence of thousands of missing sisters, even when the sea of red has disappeared from Waikiki’s shores.
For more information, see the MMIWG resource guide from UCSC’s American Indian Resource Center here. The center has hosted annual events to honor MMIWG for the past 4 years.