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Hidden Genocide on US Soil: Will Legislative Changes Help Missing Indigenous Women?

Trigger Warning: This article mentions acts of genocide including mentions of sexual assault, rape, murder, and other human rights violations. Reader discretion is advised.

Recently, Joe Biden became the first American President to formally recognise the Armenian genocide. There is a seemingly never-ending stream of headlines announcing human rights crises across the globe affecting different ethnic and social groups. It is thus not surprising when some are deemed more urgent by governments or news agencies while others continue unnoticed by the world. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis occurring in the United States and Canada is a primary example of this phenomenon. It is, of course, important for the United States government to acknowledge the Armenian genocide but why is it so difficult to acknowledge the seemingly secret genocide of Indigenous women happening on American soil?

Not only are Indigenous women disappearing but the data surrounding this crisis is uncertain and often incomplete. Based on a history of brutality and oppression between the United States government and its Indigenous populations, such cases involving sexual assault, kidnapping, and murder are often ignored. The Department of Justice cites that 70 per cent of instances of sexual assault against Native American women are never reported and numbers as high as 1 in 3 Native American women will be sexually assaulted at least once in their lifetime. Canada has also seen its fair share of these brutalities citing numbers from 500 to anywhere above 1,000 since 1980.

The current crisis that Indigenous women face in America rests upon a foundation of over three centuries of discriminatory hate crimes. Several practices such as the kidnapping and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous children as well as rape and murder are considered by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as genocidal practices.

Violence against women is not a new phenomenon, whether it is physical, emotional, or sexual. The rise of the #MeToo movement in the United States in 2017 facilitated a more open discourse on the topic of non-consensual misconduct towards women. However, it is continuously criticised for its failure to include women of colour or underprivileged backgrounds as part of the conversation.

The United States government passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994 but this lacked proper legislation for the protection of Native American women, especially on reservations. In 2013 and 2019, House Democrats have attempted to procure more legal rights for the protection of victims and prosecution of offenders but these efforts have been for the most part stalled by Republican lawmakers. In 2020, Congress officially passed Savanna’s Act, which requires the Department of Justice to "review, revise, and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing or murdered Native Americans". This type of legislation is long overdue, and it is still too early to tell whether this law will actually contribute to any difference in the tracking and aiding of the missing Indigenous women.

In the past two decades, activists have begun to make a difference in bringing this crisis to light through the organisation of marches and meetings as well as the compilation of local databases to keep track of victims. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2016. This ran until 2019 at which point its findings were then released to the public. Amongst other horrifying numbers, the inquiry found that between 1980 and 2012, a staggering 16 per cent of all female homicides were indigenous women and girls. The crisis was deemed not only a "hidden epidemic" but also a "race-based genocide".

Due to the blatant disregard shown by federal law enforcement, members of Indigenous communities have taken it upon themselves to search for their missing girls. Lissa Yellowbird Chase of North Dakota is one of several volunteers from the Sahnish Scouts of North Dakota who was responsible for finding the body of Olivia Lonebear in a lake. Although the efforts of community members banding together in such searches are admirable, it is simultaneously a display of how hidden this crisis is from the rest of the United States and the world.

On 4 May 2021, for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation that condemned the previous failures of the US government in addressing the crisis and claimed:

"My Administration is fully committed to working with Tribal Nations to address the disproportionately high number of missing or murdered Indigenous people, as well as increasing coordination to investigate and resolve these cases and ensure accountability … and addressing the underlying causes behind those numbers, including … sexual violence, human trafficking, domestic violence, violent crime, systemic racism, economic disparities, and substance use and addiction".

Biden also claimed he intended on supporting the VAWA Reauthorisation of 2021 which was passed in March 2021. The new provisions include a clause that eradicates any sort of impunity for white perpetrators of Indigenous women on tribal land.

The MMIW crisis is an ongoing crisis in human rights that receives little to no recognition in current affairs. Hidden away in the government-sanctioned reservations and impoverished towns, the Indigenous women of our nation are disappearing. With more awareness being brought to the crisis such as posting on social media for Red Dress Day to commemorate the victims and survivors, perhaps better legislation is soon to follow. It is still too soon to tell whether the new provisions made to VAWA, in addition to legislation like Savanna’s Act, will provide relief and justice to Indigenous women. Given the Biden Administration’s staunch public aversion to genocide and his proclaimed commitment to supporting Indigenous women, putting a stop to this human rights crisis should be a top priority.


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