Students and activists fight for no more stolen sisters

Hannah Throssell, Miss Native American UA First Attendant, holds one of her 2018 Phoenix Women’s March posters. Advocacy groups for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women led the marches in Seattle and Phoenix. (Photo by: Jessica Suriano/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

While many people first heard about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement at this year’s women’s marches, Eve Reyes-Aguirre was exposed to it years ago.

Reyes-Aguirre, an Izkaloteka woman living in Phoenix, lost her 16-year-old cousin in September 2001 to a domestic violence murder in a motel room in Amarillo, Texas. Her cousin’s 23-year-old boyfriend at the time, the suspected killer, has been on the run from law enforcement ever since.

Now a mother and an activist, Reyes-Aguirre is running for the Arizona Senate with the Green Party — motivated by her cousin’s death and her experiences with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.

Her story of a family member who died from domestic violence is not an anomaly among indigenous women. According to the most recent U.S. Census, indigenous people comprise about 2 percent of the total population; yet on some reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average.

A study by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service reports that 97 percent of Alaska Native and American Indian women have experienced at least one act of violence committed by a non-Indian perpetrator.

“For me, it was just kind of shocking to know that this happens, and it happens relatively often, when we’re supposed to be respecting these people,” said Amber Laughing, Miss Native American University of Arizona.

According to a National Institute of Justice study, 84.3 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, and more than one in three have experienced violence in the past year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that homicide is the third-leading cause of death among American Indians and Alaska Natives ages 10 to 24 years old.

About one in three American Indian women report a rape during their lifetimes and are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes than other races, according to the Department of Justice.

Chanting, “Native Lives Matter!” and raising signs demanding, “No more stolen sisters,” indigenous protestors, including Reyes-Aguirre, led the 2018 Seattle and Phoenix Women’s Marches this January to raise awareness of the statistics.

Hannah Throssell, a junior psychology and gender and women’s studies student, was also among the indigenous women at the 2018 Phoenix Women’s March. Throssell is part Navajo, part Tohono O’odham and part Akimel O’odham. She marched to better understand the intersections of her identity and to honor the Native women whose lives have been lost either to violence or lost track of entirely.

There are no reliable statistics available about missing or murdered Native women, according to Throssell, and she believes the justice system and laws in place are inadequate and lack oversight.

In 2016, 5,712 cases of missing Native women were reported to the National Crime Information Center. The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System allows law enforcement or the general public to add new missing persons cases to the database. The lack of a mandatory tracking system specifically accounting for Native women, though, means there is no way of knowing that the numbers previously published are accurate, according to Reyes-Aguirre.

“It just makes you scared,” said Crystal Owl, Miss Quechan Nation for the Quechan Reservation in Yuma, Arizona. “We’ve already endured so much and went through so much…and there are still things coming at us.”

Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan, a member of the Tohono O’odham nation and a Ph.D. student in American Indian Studies, described the lack of resources and research being delegated to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women with two words: “mind-blowing.”

 “I know it’s really harsh to say – but it’s an absolute truth – is that if this were white women that were being murdered at this rate, it would be a national issue,” Reyes-Aguirre said. “People would not have it. We would be talking about it every single day in the news.”

Law and Order

One of the concerns voiced in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement is that perpetrators of violence are not held accountable.

Pete Sabori, a third-year law student at UA, said there are many factors that can determine the outcome of criminal cases about tribal affairs, but some perpetrators do manage to fall through the cracks because of a complex web of jurisdiction boundaries.

Sabori, a member of the Pima and Hopi nations, worked in the Tribal Justice Clinic at UA for three semesters. He said the complicated relationship between tribal government and the federal government has historically been a “pendulum that swings back and forth.”

“At the end of the day, crime doesn’t really respect the boundary of jurisdiction,” he said. “It permeates through everything.”

In 1885, the Major Crimes Act was created to grant federal jurisdiction to crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping and other offenses in cases where an Indian offender committed a crime against both an Indian or non-Indian victim in Indian Country. If the type of crime committed does not fall under the Major Crimes Act, the Indian offender will be tried under tribal jurisdiction, not federal.

According to James Diamond, director of the Tribal Justice Clinic, Indian Country includes “all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States government, dependent Indian communities, and all Indian allotments, where the Indian titles have not been extinguished.”

Crimes committed against an Indian victim by a non-Indian offender in Indian Country also fall under federal jurisdiction under the Indian Country Crimes Act. If a non-Indian commits a crime against a non-Indian in Indian Country, it falls under state jurisdiction.

Here is where it might get tricky: In any case where the perpetrator is Indian, against both a non-Indian or Indian victim, tribal governments can prosecute the Indian perpetrator simultaneously with the federal government without creating double jeopardy.

Cheat Sheets: Indian Country Criminal Jurisdiction Chart , Jurisdiction Policies Timeline , Mother Jones Cheat Sheet

Throssell said once colonization of tribal land was underway, Euro-society did not acknowledge Native matriarchs that were in positions of political authority in some tribal lands. Sabori said the Major Crimes Act was created out of the assumption that that tribal courts did not have the “capacity or competency” to prosecute perpetrators, reflecting the U.S. federal government’s patriarchal attitude toward politics and law enforcement.

Many people were still left vulnerable after the Indian Country Crimes Act and Major Crimes Act, according to Sabori, especially when domestic violence occurred on reservations. Even with the Major Crimes Act, the federal government could pass down an investigation to tribal jurisdiction after refusing to take the case, and it could do so without giving a reason.

Fast-forward to 2010, when the Tribal Law and Order Act was created. Before this act, if a tribe wanted to pursue prosecution against an Indian perpetrator, it was limited in the number of years it could sentence him or her. The Tribal Law and Order Act allowed tribes to order Indian offenders consecutive sentences of up to nine years.

Still, these policies failed to address which agency had jurisdiction over domestic violence cases on tribal land since domestic violence did not count as a felony unless it escalated to murder. That is, until, former President Barack Obama reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013.

Finally, tribal governments were granted the voluntary power to prosecute non-Indians when they committed domestic violence and dating violence crimes against Indians, but it did not come without caveats. Sabori said domestic violence could only fall under VAWA if the perpetrator was a spouse, dating partner or intimate partner of the victim.

The new domestic violence jurisdiction of VAWA does not apply to tribes in Alaska, however, which are governed by 12 regional corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, according to Diamond.

The Pascua Yaqui nation in southern Arizona, one of the first nations to pilot VAWA on tribal lands, was the first tribal court to successfully prosecute a non-Indian for domestic violence on tribal land in June 2017 – four years after the act was enabled.

So why are Native men and women still concerned their dead or missing loved ones’ murderers or abductors will never receive punishment?

One possible reason, according to Sabori, is the silence of Indian women reporting when they experience dating violence on the reservations. Throssell said indigenous people can be apprehensive to involve the federal government in tribal affairs, even if a major crime has occurred.

“Domestic violence against women in Indian country, until abated, will continue to be a crisis,” Diamond wrote in a 2018 academic law paper. “Accordingly, Indian nations will be aggressive in working to protect their people and move toward a solution. The latest battleground is the tribal court, and attorneys, as always, will be on the frontlines.”

Both federal and tribal jurisdictions must adhere to certain statutes of limitations, and sometimes those time limits can expire before an investigation or case is closed, according to Sabori.

“At the end of the day, people have their lives affected,” he said. “They want some sort of remedy and the systems aren’t equipped to be as responsive as they should be.”

Sabori said these policies are steps in the right direction to increase tribal prosecutorial power, but the historical attitude that tribal governments lack the capability to handle crimes on Indian Country still lingers.

“Best efforts don’t go as far because each of these tribes has their own unique cultures, languages, geographies, locations, all of those things; so when you have Congress trying to Band-Aid these problems, they have to make legislation that is applicable to everyone,” he said. “In doing so, you’re going to have holes, you’re going to have deficiencies.”

The ‘Pocahottie’ Problem

In 2017, the “Wind River” film followed a woman’s murder case on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. In the film, a character named Cory Lambert, an agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, attempts to solve the murder mystery. While the film brought the issue of violence against indigenous women to the forefront of mainstream cinema, Ramon-Sauberan said, it still contained problematic representations of indigenous women and the “white savior complex.”

Throssell said the problem of sexualizing and fetishizing indigenous women also adds to misrepresentation in mainstream media. Another way this is seen is in “Pocahottie” Halloween costumes – sexualized costumes that non-Indian people have worn that appropriate indigenous cultures. She said this is just one factor that could be implicitly perpetuating violence against indigenous women.

When media like “Wind River” and “Pocahottie” costumes surface every year, there will be non-Indian people asking why they are still held accountable or responsible for the oppression created by their ancestors’ colonization, according to Sabori.

“The answer to that is: there are still people benefitting from those historic systems of oppression that were set up,” he said.

What Now?

Laughing plans on using her degree to help the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement and other indigenous peoples’ issues in the future.

“For me, even though I don’t feel like I can do a lot right now,” she said. “I can try to make sure that I’m putting myself in a position to help people in the future who are dealing with this.”

Owl said that although the Me Too and Time’s Up movements have made great progress in giving women’s voices a platform, they still lack inclusiveness of indigenous women’s issues.

“Indigenous women are kind of left in the background of all those issues,” she said. “So now I feel like it’s the time to bring that up because it is such a large issue – here and in Canada.”

Laughing and Owl said there are actions non-Indian people can take to support the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement without developing a white savior complex.

Owl said whenever there is a conversation about indigenous people’s rights, people need to consider the historical trauma those communities have endured and the variation of each tribal communities’ background and culture.

Laughing said people should try to get involved with smaller Native events in their communities, not just at the women’s marches once a year.

The bottom line, both women said, of what someone should do when they are not sure how to help: Just ask.

In October 2017, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced Savanna’s Act, which would theoretically improve tribal access to federal crime information databases, require an annual data report of missing and murdered indigenous women to Congress, and create a standardized response protocol for these cases.

The bill was named in honor of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a woman of the Spirit Lake Tribe whose pregnant body was found dead in the Red River in North Dakota in August 2017 after disappearing eight days before.

In 2016, Canada created a five-person commission to oversee its National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which includes two-spirited, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer women.

By the end of 2018, the commission is expected to finalize a report that includes research on the systematic causes of violence and institutional response practices in place in the country. Then, they are to recommend what actions need to be taken to address the problems they find, including ways to commemorate indigenous women and girls already missing or murdered.

“One of the things that needs to be important,” Sabori said,“is to remind the general public that they were individuals, that they had accomplishments, that they were people at the end of the day – not just a picture and not just a statistic.”

Jessica Suriano is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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