Who will speak for the voiceless? The disappearance of Indigenous women and girls in the United States

Note: The data listed in this blog post comes from the recent “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls” report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. I did some basic analysis but they deserve all the credit for bringing this issue to light. The whole report is worth reading and this post is only a summary of some data that I decided to frame differently.

Additionally, the terminology I use, such as Indigenous, as opposed to Native American or American Indian, is due to what is in the report. Basically, I’m a white guy and I’m going to take direction from others about what the proper terms to use are.

The Urban Indian Health Institute identified 506 cases of missing or murdered Indigenous Women & Girls in the United States. That is a shocking number, but that is likely just a fraction of the cases that actually exist. You see, data is difficult to come by for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Lack of resources: UIHI was only able to reach out to 71 selected cities and couldn’t afford the FOIA fees
  • Lack of support from law enforcement: Only 40 out of 72 law enforcement agencies provided data
  • Lack of tracking: Out of the 5,712 cases reported in 2016 only 116 were actually logged in the Department of Justice database.
  • Racial Misclassification: Sometimes individuals are misidentified as part of the majority race. It is more likely that a law enforcement agency will just check the “White” box instead of the “Indigenous” box but the reverse isn’t true.

So, even with those limitations the numbers are astounding. Can you even begin to imagine what the numbers actually are if all law enforcement agencies complied with the FOIA requests for free and accurately tracked the murders? I can’t.

Before I get started on my calculations, here is the most terrifying stat I learned:  murder is the 3rd leading cause of death of Indigenous women. THIRD! 

There aren’t enough expletives to handle that.

Alright, no on to the numbers. I could just regurgitate data from the list but I wanted to do more and put some of that into perspective, specifically by diving into the city data. Here are the top 10 cities with the highest number of MMIWG cases:

  • Seattle, WA – 45
  • Albuquerque, NM – 37
  • Anchorage, AK – 31
  • Tucson, AZ – 31
  • Billings, MT – 29
  • Gallup, NM – 25
  • Tacoma, WA – 25
  • Omaha, NE – 24
  • Salt Lake City, UT -24
  • San Francisco, CA – 17

The first thing I wanted to do to get some perspective was to try and even out the comparison a bit. Trying to compare an event based only on raw numbers isn’t particularly informative, those cities have populations that range from less than 25,000 to 850,000. That’s why a lot of the comparisons between cities and states you see around the news are garbage, you need to break the data down into the smallest, most uniform geography possible (usually Census Tracts).

WHAT IS GOING ON IN GALLUP, NEW MEXICO??? The other numbers are bad but they are absolutely dwarfed by Gallup where an Indigenous woman or girl has a 1 in 1,000 chance of being murdered or missing.

As unacceptable as that is, it is actually much, much worse. Comparing the total population doesn’t tell us everything. These aren’t just missing or murdered people so comparing them to all people is misleading. These are Indigenous women, which means we should be comparing the numbers from the report to that specific population.

That is not an error, those are the numbers for 1 in 1,000. With this comparison we see that Gallup is not alone, Omaha has joined the top rung with SLC not far behind. In Omaha and Gallup, an Indigenous Female has over 2% chance of being murdered or going missing.

That’s 1 out of 50.

That is about 100 times more likely than dying in a car wreck.

Can you imagine if there was a city of 20,000 in the US where White women were disappearing or being murdered at that rate? There would be a national outcry. Federal agents would swarm in looking for a serial killer or to investigate corrupt police agencies covering things up. It would be all over the news until things changed.

The population of New York City was about 7.5 million in the late 70’s when Son of Sam was at large. He killed 6 people and injured 7 others, so fear felt by that city ended up reflecting a 2 out of a million chance of being injured. Can you imagine the fear that Indigenous women live with every day? There are only 1,411 Indigenous women in Omaha and 20 of them have been murdered or missing, I’m willing to bet every women alive knows one of those missing or murdered women.

East St. Louis, Illinois has the highest murder rate in the country with about 1 murder per 1,000 people. That city would have to see a 20-fold increase in murders to match Omaha and Gallup. I know people who wouldn’t dare step foot in East St. Louis because of the perceived danger, what kind of fear must these Indigenous women have when they go home or travel in their own city?

The city with the highest murder rate IN THE WORLD is Caracas. Their murder rate? One hundred and sixteen per 100,000, or 1.16 per thousand, barely more than East St. Louis and absolutely minuscule when compared to Indigenous women in Omaha and Gallup.

So, what should be done? I don’t know, but UIHI has some ideas (my thoughts in italic), including:

  1. Require tracking and reporting of murders. I can’t believe this isn’t a thing. Indigenous women can easily be left out due to jurisdictional issues and even the Feds aren’t required to track it.
  2. Allow Tribal nations to advocate for their citizens like other sovereign nations, just as our government would advocate if an American was killed or went missing. I imagine that if this many women were killed in a foreign country and there was a clear cover-up or no response we may actually go to war over it.
  3. Funding for research to support effective policies must increase.

I’m now thoroughly bummed, but this information is important. We can’t just pretend that this isn’t happening.

Post Script: If I messed up any calculations please let me know. I would love to be wrong about some of this.

Post Post Script: If anyone would like me to visualize any other part of the date using charts, graphs, or maps, I’m happy to do so. I just kind of slung this together but I can spend time making things a bit prettier if needed. Just email me at pjneiger@gmail.com.


Sources: Demographic data came from the 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates tables B01001C and DP05 . Death statistics came from this link. And here are the links to murders in East St. Louis and El Salvador.

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