By Roos Saat
Disclaimer: First Nations is the official term used to refer to Indigenous people from Canada, while Native American refers to Indigenous people from the United States.
The first time I noticed the small poster on a bathroom door at a gas station a few kilometers outside of Vancouver, I didn’t think much of it. A missing-person poster is not unusual so close to a big city and I would probably have forgotten about it, had I not come across similar posters throughout British Columbia and Alberta. What struck me most was that in almost all cases the missing people were Indigenous women.
Some online research reveals thousands of stories from the past few decades about missing and murdered First Nations and Native Americans across North America. In the first six months of this year alone, 2.758 First Nation women were reported missing. This number becomes even more alarming when you take into account that First Nations only make up 4,3% of the total Canadian population. In 2015 a quarter of all murdered Canadian women were indigenous, compared to 9% in 1980. In some U.S. counties consisting of mostly Native American land, the murder rates of Native American women are up to ten times higher than the national average of all races.
With more than half of Native American women having been sexually assaulted and over a third having been raped during their lifetime – this rate is nearly 2,5 times higher than for white women – these deaths, disappearances, and cases of sexual assault have become woven into everyday life of Indigenous people. Everyone has a relative, friend, or neighbor who has suddenly disappeared or been killed. Of these assaults, two thirds are committed by white and other non-Native people.
The reasons behind the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and the little action taken are multi-faceted and deeply rooted in colonial history and racist attitudes towards Indigenous people. Such reasons include domestic violence, police indifference, sex trafficking, and lack of resources available for tribal governments. Additionally, a maze of jurisdictions and rules between tribal, federal, and local law slows down investigations, in some cases even making them impossible. For example, law states that non-Native men cannot be arrested or prosecuted by tribal authorities if they assault Native American women on reservations. When tribal law enforcement sent these cases of sexual abuse to the FBI and U.S. law enforcement, over two thirds of these reports were declined.
An important facet of the issue is the so called ‘men-camps’, work camps housing mostly male employees who work on resource development projects. In most cases they are employed by the oil industry, constructing pipe lines often close to or on reservations. In Northern British Columbia for instance, a consultant’s report from 2017 warned about ‘hyper-masculine’ culture in remote work camps, noting the Fort St. James area experienced a 38% increase in RCMP-reported sexual assaults in one industrial project’s first year. Around the same region, along the route of two planned natural-gas pipelines, a pair of remote First Nations have ensured all health stations are stocked with rape kits before work camps arrive (Markusoff, 2018). These camps are often associated with and blamed for an increase in sex trafficking, violence, drugs- and alcohol abuse in their situated regions.
With the growth of the #MeToo movement over the past years, awareness has increased for the missing and murdered indigenous women. Just a month ago, a PhD student from Alberta, Nahreman Issa, launched the first central database containing names and information on “missing and murdered women, girls, and two spirit people in Canada and the United States, from 1900 to the present” (mmiwdtabase.com, 2018). There are 2.501 cases in the database as of April 2018, of which a shocking third are girls ages 18 and under. The actual number of missing and murdered women, however, is estimated to be over 28.000 in total. It is grassroot projects like these that give more attention to the missing and murdered women. Action should be taken at federal level, and raising awareness to this issue is therefore necessary to bring light to the crisis that so many indigenous women, girls, and families are faced with every day.
Roos Saat, Class of 2019, is a History, Art-History, and Religion Major from Almere, The Netherlands.
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