On May 5, Shining Attention on the Native American Murder Epidemic

May 5, 2023 | 3:55 pm
Tohono Indian Women led the Tucson 2019 Women’s March with a show of strength, resilience and power. This woman’s sign said: My Mom, Sisters, Aunties and Grandmas are sacred. Her son was by her side. International Women’s DayDulcey Lima/Unsplash
Sophia Marjanovic
Former Contributor

Upon pressure from Native American researchers and activists regarding the lack of data on missing and murdered Indigenous women, the U.S. Department of Justice found that Native American women face murder rates more than ten times the national average and that 4 out 5 Native Americans have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime with over 90% of the victims having a perpetrator who is not Native American. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control found that homicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among girls and women who are between the ages of 1-19. They also found that homicide is the 6th leading cause of death among Native American women between the ages of 20-44. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control later found that homicide was the 5th leading cause of death for American Indian/Alaska Native males and the 7th leading cause of death for American Indian/Alaska Native females between the ages of 1-54. Clearly, violence against Native Americans is a pressing public health problem.

In 2017, the United States Senate passed a resolution to recognize May 5 as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. May 5th commemorates the birthday of Hanna Harris, a Northern Cheyenne woman who had gone missing and was found murdered five days after being reported missing in 2013. Because law enforcement was slow to respond, Hanna’s family had to conduct the search for their missing relative. Hanna’s family sought accountability and secured some through Hanna’s Act in Montana, which authorizes the state’s Department of Justice to assist with the investigation of all missing persons and requires the employment of a missing persons specialist. Hanna’s Act was signed into law by Montana Governor Steve Bullock in 2019.  

Since 2017, the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls is commemorated especially in Native American communities across the US. Last year, on May 4, 2022, President Biden issued a proclamation to commemorate this day. The proclamation reiterated his administration’s commitment to investigating and resolving the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples by directing federal agencies to improve public safety and improve law enforcement practices for Native Americans. The proclamation also committed to prevention by listening to the people, who are most impacted by the violence that leads Indigenous people to become missing and murdered, about what is needed to feel safe. 

Despite having a Ph.D. in immunology and microbiology and having trained at the National Institutes of Health for my Ph.D., I became a Native American survivor of human trafficking who could have been the next missing or murdered Native woman. My lived experience about what led me to fall into the vulnerable position of human trafficking and what helped me find freedom from human trafficking is how I will convey to you about what I need in order to feel safe. How I fell into human trafficking is linked to how the United States became prosperous from stolen land, lives, people and labor.  

The author with a red handprint over their mouth, which is a symbol of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People activists. The red handprint over the mouth in my tribe, the Oceti Sakowin, also means someone who has successfully defeated someone in conflict without weapons; it is an indication of being adept at solving conflicts without weapons. Photo credit: Sophia Marjanovic

Historical and continued enslavement of Indigenous Americans

Before African people were enslaved and brought to the Americas forcefully, European colonizers started enslaving Indigenous Americans in 1492. Despite many attempts to outlaw the enslavement of Indigenous Americans, the practice persisted. For example, Pope Paul III banned the enslavement of Indigenous Americans in 1537. However, this did not stop the practice as Spanish colonizers switched to what is known as the encomienda system. The encomienda system is a form of debt slavery where Spanish colonizers took plots of where Indigenous Americans already lived and extracted natural resources through mining and/or agriculture through forced Indigenous labor. The Spanish Crown banned the enslavement of Indigenous Americans in 1542 by placing a restriction on inheritance of encomiendas by Spanish colonizers. This also did not stop the practice because there was violent opposition by Spanish colonizers to restrictions on the encomienda system. 

The repartimiento system, a system where Indigenous American labor was still forced, but Indigenous American people were paid a fixed wage, instead replaced the encomienda system and persisted until 1820. When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it did not apply to Indigenous American enslavement, as it specifically applied to states in rebellion. Subsequently, the Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments applied mainly to Black people and excluded Indigenous Americans. Therefore, Indigenous American slavery persisted.  1867, the Peonage Act passed in U.S. Congress to abolish peonage (that is, the practice of forced labor as a form of debt repayment) that finally applied to Indigenous American slavery, but the practice was so firmly established that debt slavery among Indigenous Americans persists to this day in the form of human trafficking, mass incarceration, and the gig economy. 

Indigenous American women and children were the most enslaved Indigenous Americans before and after slavery was legally abolished in the United States in the late 1800s. Indigenous American women were often priced at 50-60% more than men often due to sexual exploitation and due to their ability to produce more slaves in captivity. Indigenous children were also highly valued because they were more likely to accept the conditions of slavery as normal. According to historian, Andrés Reséndez, “adult women were the highest valued slaves, followed by girls, followed by boys and followed by grown men. And there was a big drop off for the adult males. Maybe you can think about it as the antecedent of modern day forms of sex trafficking.” 

The persistent wealth gap between White and Indigenous and Black people is based on enslavement and genocide. While slave-owning dynasties regained their wealth within approximately 15 years after the Civil War due to social capital, Indigenous American slavery changed forms as the people who became prosperous from slavery had no intention to abandon what made them most profitable: from stolen land, lives and labor.  

The new way to profit from Indigenous American slavery began in 1819 with the Indian Civilization Fund Act and persisted until 1969, when the Association of American Indian Affairs completed a survey about how up to 35% of Native American children were removed from their families and communities. By separating Native American children from their families and placing them into boarding schools often far away from their communities, and exploiting their labor, through what is suspected as indentured servitude, Indigenous American slavery changed forms.  

Commissioner of Indian Affairs William A. Jones described the main goal of boarding schools in getting Indigenous American children to accept the conditions of captivity: 

The young of the wild bird, though born in captivity, naturally retains the instincts of freedom so strong in the parent and beats the bars to secure it, while after several generations of captivity the young bird will return to the cage after a brief period of freedom. So with the Indian child. The first wild redskin placed in the school chafes at the loss of freedom and longs to return to his wildwood home. His offspring retains some of the habits acquired by the parent. These habits receive fresh development in each successive generation, fixing new rules of conduct, different aspirations, and greater desires to be in touch with the dominant race.  

In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act  (ICWA) was signed into law by President Carter to address the facts that up to 35% of Native American children had been removed from their parents and that up to 90% of the removed children had been placed into custody outside their extended families and communities, even when they had fit relatives and community members willing to care for them.  

Indigenous children face forced separation, human trafficking, mass incarceration

According to a 2013 report by the Human Health Services Administration, 50% to more than 90% of all children who were victims of child sex trafficking had been separated from their parents and received child welfare services via foster care. A study in 2021 also concluded that Indigenous American children are overrepresented in the foster care system, such that contemporary levels of American Indian/Alaska Native exposure to foster care are similar to the levels documented in 1978. They predict that the levels would be higher if the Indian Child Welfare Act had not been implemented. According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, “Children should not be separated from their parents unless they are not being properly looked after.” The normalization of removing Indigenous American children from their parents persists as indicated by how Indigenous American children are overrepresented in the foster care system. Federal funding further incentivizes state governments to remove Indigenous American children from their families and communities by providing more federal funding for foster care and adoption through Title IV-e than funding for other child welfare services such as family reunification (Title IV-b), Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), etc.  

The welfare reform of 1996 enabled for-profit childcare institutions to participate in the federal foster care program. This provides incentives for Indigenous American children to be separated from their families. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 also accelerated the rate at which Indigenous American children, who are often labeled as special needs, got placed into adoption by authorizing incentive payments to states to increase the number of foster and special-needs children who are placed for adoption. Health and Human Services oversight has minimal accountability built into their reviews of programs that receive Title IV-e. This lack of oversight has resulted in state foster care agencies taking millions of dollars owed to children in their care. The Marshall Project in collaboration with NPR found that “at least 10 state foster care agencies hired for-profit companies to obtain millions of dollars in Social Security benefits intended for the most vulnerable children in their care each year.” Daniel Hatcher’s work through his research in his books, The Poverty Industry and Injustice, Inc. show how the courts use children as a revenue source.  

Youth who age out of foster care have an increased risk of enduring human trafficking, homelessness, unemployment, and interacting with the justice system. With the overrepresentation of Indigenous Americans in the foster care system, it shouldn’t be surprising that Indigenous Americans experience overrepresentation in human trafficking, homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration. In fact, women and girls are the fastest-growing demographic getting incarcerated. Because incarcerated people can legally be enslaved due to the 13th Amendment, the enslavement of Indigenous Americans never ended. It merely changed forms like it always has in the United States. With prison guards documented as being responsible for nearly half of sexual assaults in prisons, rape and pregnancy in incarceration ultimately lead to Indigenous American children born into captivity often through entering the foster care system.  

The gig economy creates Indigenous American slavery

While data is lacking due to problems in how non-Indigenous people collect data about Indigenous American people, Indigenous Americans are within a category of people who have increased representation in the gig economy, which is modern debt slavery/indentured servitude.  Indigenous Americans are overrepresented in frontline jobs that are often gig economy jobs. The lack of worker protections in gig work by the National Labor Relations Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the American Disabilities Act, leaves people to be abused on the job with no protections from the abuse. This abuse leaves many Indigenous Americans having to choose between taking a risk to become the next missing or murdered Indigenous relative–or risking housing, food and/or clean water instability. In order to avoid housing, food and/or clean water instability, many Indigenous Americans work up to and over 40 hours per week in gig economy jobs with no benefits. One pregnant Hopi mother working in the gig economy lost her life due to the lack of worker protections in 2019.

I was someone who had to take the risk of abuse while working in the informal gig economy and became disabled from the abuse. Because disability payments from the federal government do not pay anyone enough to cover rent, I became homeless and within 6 months, I fell into human trafficking. This happened despite having a Ph.D. in immunology and microbiology and having trained at NIH for my Ph.D. thesis. Even Indigenous Americans who have assimilated in getting educated in the most traditionally accomplished ways possible still fall into human trafficking. I am not alone. Native Americans are at higher risk to enter human trafficking compared to other diverse populations in the US. When I attended the most recent American Indian Science & Engineering Society conference in 2022, I learned about other Indigenous Americans working in the gig economy despite having college degrees in the sciences. The lack of data regarding how many Native Americans are in the gig economy results in no solutions to stop our descent into human trafficking, which is a major contributing factor for Indigenous Americans to become missing and/or murdered. 


Because Indigenous Americans endure multiple layers of oppression, there are multiple solutions to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples’ epidemic.  

As an Indigenous mother who has suffered from losing custody of my only child, and who fell into homelessness and human trafficking, I know that finding a job that provided housing, transportation, and an advance on my first paycheck so that I could have stability was what worked in my liberation from human trafficking. Improving the safety net through stable access to housing, food, clean water, transportation and healthcare is one of the most effective ways to prevent Indigenous Americans from going missing and/or murdered. Additionally, improving worker protections so that people cannot exploited in the gig economy is how to prevent Indigenous Americans from becoming missing and/or murdered. Improving data collection for Indigenous American people can also help with the research conclusions about Native Americans, so that we are not missing from research conclusions.

Both the United Nations and ProPublica are currently investigating why survivors of abuse disproportionately lose custody of children in the US. These investigations can hopefully lead to policy changes such as the Equal Rights Amendment and improved federal protections for women and children through the legislative and executive branches of government to reduce child separations so that Indigenous American children don’t go missing and/or murdered through the child welfare system. 

The Indian Child Welfare Act has been pivotal in addressing the systematic separation of Indigenous children from their families and communities–but unfortunately, the ICWA is under review in the U.S. Supreme Court. Therefore, states across the USA have been passing legislation to protect Native American children from increased risk of entering foster care, if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns ICWA. The attorney who represented the Dakota Access Pipeline has led in trying to get ICWA eroded via the U.S. Supreme Court in order to try to erode Native American sovereignty. Many environmental movement victories have depended upon Native American sovereignty; by eroding Native American sovereignty, these victories will be more difficult to achieve. Call your federal representatives at 202-224-3121 to demand stronger protections for Indigenous women and children through increased funding for safety net services for housing, food, clean water, etc. stability and a stronger ICWA bill. 

On this Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relative Remembrance Day, please make an attempt to build a relationship with the people upon whose land you are occupying. Building relationships with Indigenous people works to overcome the systematic social capital concentrated and initially outright hoarded in colonial communities. Building relationships with Indigenous American people results in increased community care and increased community care will help prevent Indigenous American people from becoming missing and/or murdered. If you don’t know how to contact the people on whose land you are occupying, often the cultural preservation offices of tribal communities are the best places to start.