In the University of Utah’s Indigenous Land Acknowledgement, the university gives voice to the fact that the area, which is now called Utah, has for thousands of years been and continues to be the homeland of the eight Federally Recognized Tribal Nations of Utah.
Additionally, in the area that is now known as the United States, there are currently 573 Federally Recognized Tribal Nations. Although the communities that identify as American Indian or Alaska Native (AI/AN) are the original inhabitants of the land, they for a large part, remain invisible to the non-Native society. The health and economic disparities also remain unnoticed by many.
“They don’t see us, they don’t think about us, and they don’t know the history.”
Michael Bird, president of the American Public Health Association, stated in the August 2018 Public Health Post, “…the knowledge of Indian history among most non-native people in this country is next to nil. For those building policies, it’s really important to listen. I would say the major challenge is that, to the American public, Indian people are invisible. They don’t see us, they don’t think about us, and they don’t know the history.”
This is reflected in the Kellogg Foundation’s national survey published in Reclaiming Native Truth: over 40% of Americans think that AI/AN people no longer exist. This lack of recognition adds to many of the problems found in AI/AN communities, both on reservations and in urban centers.
An issue that illustrates this invisibility is the high numbers of murdered and missing Indigenous women and youth. It is estimated that every year in North America, hundreds of Indigenous women and transgender youth go missing or are found murdered, but finding an exact number is nearly impossible due to under-reporting by local police, lack of tracking by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and lack of academic research on the subject. Although this issue has been prominent in AI/AN communities in the U.S. for many years, it has not been visible in the national dialogue until very recently. “The U.S. Department of Justice found that American Indian women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average.”
Tribal activists caution that it is nearly impossible to gather accurate data due to under-reporting by local law enforcement or the FBI. On reservation lands murders are investigated by the FBI, not local or tribal police.
Identification in a Time of Invisibility for American Indian and Alaska Natives in the United States indicates:
Similar issues exist across the border in Canada. The Canadian government released the results of an ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Indigenous women in 2014 but have run into similar issues of under reporting by local law enforcement.
Reports from the Canadian government estimated the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to be 1,200 missing Indigenous women between the 1980 and 2012; however, the number may be closer to 4,000.
In the US there were 5,712 cases of missing Native women reported to the National Crime Information Center in 2016. The lack of data is so serious that Annita Lucchese, an independent doctoral student, had to build her own database to track publicly reported missing or murdered Indigenous women in the US and Canada.
The question remains: why are Indigenous women going missing? The answer may lie in the rate of violence against Indigenous women. The National Institute of Justice found in a recent study found that of the Indigenous women surveyed, four out of five of them (83 percent) had experienced violence in their lifetime, 1.2 times the rate for non-Hispanic white women. Nearly 40 percent of AIAN women experienced violence during 2016. AIAN men are also much more likely to experience violence (81.6 percent) in their lifetimes compared to 64 percent of non-Hispanic White men.
Sometimes these issues seem far away from the lives of the residents of Utah and the University of Utah communities. However, according to a 2018 study from the Urban Indian Health Institute, Utah ranks 8th in the nation. One of the difficulties that have been mentioned by family members when AI/AN people go missing is the stated assumption by law enforcement that these family members have “run away.” The answer to this has been taken up by members of the families and friends of the missing.
One example is Meskee Yanabah Yatsayte who created the Navajo Nation Missing Persons Updates. As she stated in an article published in the Salt Lake City Tribune on September 23, 2020, “We’ve had several people in our family murdered,” she said. “I’ve had several friends murdered.” Yatsayte noticed Navajo Nation residents experiencing similar tragedies were posting information about missing relatives in Facebook swap pages, and she was shocked to learn that there was no official outlet for sharing information about missing persons on the reservation.
“Show your support with a red handprint face mask, hang a red dress, talk to members of your family and community about the issue. Demand legislation, better data collection and do research on ways to help.”
There have been attempts to provide greater awareness and protections through legislation like the Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act, but more needs to be done.
To this end, and in respect of Native American Heritage Month, we ask that you support greater awareness and legislation to protect AI/AN and all other vulnerable people. Show your support with a red handprint face mask, hang a red dress, talk to members of your family and community about the issue. Demand legislation, better data collection and do research on ways to help.
May there be a day when no mother, sister, cousin, friend community member need sit and wait for information on a missing loved one.
In addition to attending Native American Heritage Month events at the University of Utah, help spread awareness to your social networks, by using the hashtag #NoMoreMMIP and/or the “No More MMIP” Facebook filter.
Franci Taylor is the director of the University of Utah’s American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) where she leads the Center’s mission to advocate for American Indian and Alaskan Native (AI/AN) students and serve as a vital link between them, the U and the larger community. To learn more from Taylor and local experts about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Peoples (MMIW/MMIP), visit the Native American Heritage Month sub-calendar for events on this topic.
Identity Policies Social Justice