May 5 is the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (also known as National REDress Day of Awareness). This Sunday, as you go past Newport City Hall, you will see red dresses flapping on the trees. These serve to remind us of the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) in the U.S. and Canada. The event commences at 10 a.m. My Sisters’ Place and the Central Oregon Coast Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) are working together to draw attention to this epidemic.
In 2016, 5,712 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing. This is likely only a small percentage of the real number, as there can be no definitive figure due to the complex nature of the jurisprudence in and around Indian Country. Only 116 of these women were officially recorded in the U.S. Department of Justice’s missing persons database (Urban Indian Health Institute, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls, 2018). The brutal reality is that law enforcement and often the general public are indifferent. Also, resources to document the fates of MMIW are lacking.
Native women are disproportionately affected by violence. A recent study by the National Institute of Justice estimated that 84 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence. Murder is the third leading cause of death of native women, and they are far more likely than other women to go missing. What is particularly unusual about the violence against Native American women is that, unlike other demographics where the perpetrators of the violence are most likely to be from the victim’s community, native women are more likely to be sexually assaulted and preyed upon by non-natives.
There are bills pending in Congress and the Oregon Legislature to begin addressing this deplorable problem. In Congress, Savanna’s Act was first introduced in 2017; it passed the Senate unanimously, but did not get a hearing in the House. It has been reintroduced in 2019 as S227; Oregon Senators Merkley and Wyden are co-sponsors. If passed in its current form, Savanna’s Act would require the United States to start keeping and publishing statistics related to the disappearance or murder of native women. It would also seek to improve access for tribal governments and tribal law enforcement agencies to the federal crime information databases — lack of communication is one of the major issues currently facing both the investigators working for the native nations and American government.
In the Oregon Legislature, HB 2625A has passed the House unanimously and is currently under consideration in the Senate Judiciary Committee. If passed, HB 2625A directs the Department of State Police to study how to increase and improve criminal justice resources relating to missing and murdered Native American women in Oregon and report to the appropriate committee or interim committee of Legislative Assembly no later than September 15, 2020.
If passed, these bills are certainly a step in the right direction. However, there is so much more that needs to be done; it is up to all of us to REDress this wrong. Join My Sisters’ Place and Central Oregon Coast NOW on Sunday to show support and remember the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. For more information on the topic and to find out how you can help, Central Oregon Coast NOW is hosting Deborah Maytubee Denton-Shipman, director of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA, at its May 28 meeting, which will be held at 6 p.m. in the McEntee Meeting Room at the Newport Public Library.
Nancy Campbell Mead is a past president of Central Oregon Coast NOW. She lives in Depoe Bay.