Native American women go missing at shocking rates; these women want to change that (2023)

Young Kwak

Niki Zacherle says now is the time for tribal communities to stand up and speak out against violence."

By the time Puyallup tribal member Carolyn DeFord told police her mom was missing, she'd already spent days making sure it wasn't just a miscommunication when she hadn't shown up to a friend's home after grocery shopping in La Grande, Oregon.

At first she thought of excuses — her car broke down, her pager died — but then DeFord learned her mom, who took pride in her work, hadn't shown up, and her dog had been locked in her house.

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"That was a key piece for me that, OK, I needed to be worried," DeFord says, "'cause my mom didn't go anywhere without the dog."

So DeFord, living six hours away in Olympia, was certain something was wrong when she made the call. But initially, she says, the police spoke down to her. She had to argue to actually make a report.

"My mom fell into all these stereotypes that Native women fall into: addiction, victim of domestic violence, all those things that discredit their search," DeFord says. "She's a victim, and we victim blame."

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Leona LeClair Kinsey

More than 18 years later, Leona LeClair Kinsey is still missing.

Now, DeFord is one of many Native American women who are building on the momentum of #MeToo and #TimesUp by calling on people to recognize missing and murdered indigenous women throughout the U.S. and Canada (using #MMIW) and demanding action to help a population that faces among the highest rates of violence, rape and murder.

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They're calling attention to women whose cases have gone cold, and asking why cases aren't investigated more when someone is found murdered, says Monique Bourgeau, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes.

"My mom, she said all my life, 'I tell you girls, you watch where you're going, you watch what you're doing, you watch who comes around you,' because she knows that when an Indian woman goes missing, nothing ever happens," Bourgeau says.

And their stories largely go unshared.

But after marching in the Seattle and Spokane women's marches, wearing red to remember the blood spilled by their sisters, mothers, daughters and elders, the women have called for an accounting in Olympia, and at least one bill could address one of the main barriers to resolving these cases: No one seems to know exactly how many are missing.


American Indian women are more than twice as likely to face sexual-assault crimes as any other ethnic group, with one in three reporting being raped at some point, according to the Department of Justice. They and American Indian men are also far more likely than other groups to have experienced physical assault, and those who are subject to violence are more likely to go missing or be murdered.

To at least get a sense of how large the issue is, Washington State Rep. Gina McCabe, R-Goldendale, threw together House Bill 2951 in just days, with guidance from women from tribes around the state. The place to start is by bringing the federal, state and federally recognized sovereign tribal governments together to ensure that everyone who goes missing is reported and listed in a central location, McCabe says.

"There seems like there's this disconnect between local police and county police and tribal police and the FBI," McCabe says. "My goal is to get everyone at the table."

The bill tasks the Washington State Patrol with creating a list of missing Native American women in the state by June 2019, by working with tribal and non-tribal police agencies around the state. It also asks they help identify barriers and recommend fixes. The bill passed through the House Committee on Community Development, Housing and Tribal Affairs on Feb. 1, just hitting the deadline to get to the next committee. It'll take a few more moves to get it to the floor for a vote, and then it has to go to the Senate.

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"I have to keep it alive for three or four weeks, and then hopefully it will go fast in the Senate, and hopefully people will testify, because I don't think people know about this problem," McCabe says, noting that the bill can still be adjusted if changes are needed. "I think we can lead the country in making sure this isn't a problem anywhere else."


Adding to confusion about exactly how many people of any group are missing is the fact that there are several databases where someone may be listed. For example, Washington State Patrol maintains a public webpage with pictures and posters for missing people, but it only features a few dozen names.

"That is not all-inclusive of all missing persons in Washington," explains Carri Gordon, manager of WSP's missing and unidentified persons unit. "You can be entered into the FBI or state's list as a missing person and never be entered on our website. Those photos on our WSP website are only posted at the request of family members or law enforcement."

Another group maintains the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, but that doesn't include every missing person in the country either.

The most comprehensive list is the National Criminal Information Center, or NCIC. Every police or law enforcement agency that wants to can enter information into the database and check it to see if someone is listed as missing anywhere around the country. The cases it contains may be hours, weeks, or decades old.

But not every tribal police agency has access. Of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in Washington state, about 20 are listed as having access to NCIC, Gordon says.

While American Indian/Alaska Natives make up about 1.9 percent of the state's 7.4 million people, they account for a disproportionate 5.5 percent of the roughly 1,800 Washington people listed as missing. Gordon notes that unless the ethnicity is entered by a family member, it's never totally accurate, which means that figure could be higher or lower.

Among reports to NCIC by a handful of local law enforcement agencies, including the Spokane and Colville tribal police departments, there are at least 21 missing people listed as Native American in northeast Washington. The earliest case listed in a report Gordon pulled for the Inlander on Monday, Feb. 5, dates back to 1988. The most recent was entered on Sunday.

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Aside from issues making sure law enforcement agencies are reporting to the same system, there is also an issue with people thinking there is a mandatory waiting period before they can make a report, Gordon says.

"Local law enforcement in the past have had that policy that they've had to be gone for 24 hours," she says, "but in my experience at national conferences, that whole mindset is slowly starting to go away."


While lawmakers consider changes at the law enforcement level, activists continue to push the issue at the local and potentially national level.

Niki Zacherle, a member of the Confederated Colville Tribes, is helping MAC (Music, Art, Creativity) Movement founders Drea Rose, a member of the Spokane Tribe, and Crystle Burgett, as they raise money to help shelter people walking across the country to Washington, D.C., as they draw attention to violence and drug abuse in Indian Country. They'll start the "Longest Walk" Feb. 16 in Blaine, Washington, and make stops in Eastern Washington on their way to the capitol.

"So many people don't understand that we do still struggle with colonization and domestic violence, and it's a topic that nobody wants to talk about," Zacherle says.

Standing outside the Spokane Tribal Gathering Place Monday evening, where MAC serves weekly meals and encourages the less fortunate to voice their concerns at city council meetings, the women are surrounded by dozens of red handprints painted on the sidewalk.

Their modern artwork calls on those walking by to recognize the missing and murdered, and remember their blood lost, as they enter City Hall. Joining them to speak to the city council are the members of Power 2 the Poetry, who sing and perform spoken word both in and outside council chambers, calling attention to violence and disparity faced by the black community, and standing in solidarity with the Native women.

"We are shoved under the rug by corruption even in our own homelands," Zacherle tells the council. "I'm here to say we will not be silent anymore. We will not be shoved under the rug anymore." ♦

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Why are Native Americans going missing? ›

For decades, Native American and Alaska Native communities have struggled with high rates of assault, abduction, and murder of women. Community advocates describe the crisis as a legacy of generations of government policies of forced removal, land seizures and violence inflicted on Native peoples.

Why are Indigenous women missing? ›

As a group that has been "socially, economically, and politically marginalized", Indigenous women have been frequent targets for hatred and violence. Underlying factors such as poverty and homelessness contribute to their victimization, as do historical factors such as racism, sexism, and the legacy of imperialism.

How often do Indigenous women go missing? ›

But while they received significant media attention, these cases certainly don't tell the whole story. In fact, in 2020 alone, according to the National Crime Information Center there were 5,295 reports of missing women and girls — all of them American Indian and Alaska Natives.

When did Native American women start missing? ›

The oldest case UIHI identified happened in 1943, but approximately two-thirds of the cases in UIHI's data are from 2010 to 2018,” the report says. “This suggests the actual number of urban MMIWG (Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women) cases are much higher than what UIHI was able to identify in this study.”

What Indian tribe went missing? ›

For 1,000 years, long before Columbus, the Anasazi Indians were lords of what's now the American Southwest. Their civilization was as complex and sophisticated as that of the Mayans. Then, apparently without warning, the Anasazi all but disappeared.

How much Native Americans are left? ›

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the current total population of Native Americans in the United States is 6.79 million, which is about 2.09% of the entire population. There are about 574 federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S.

What causes missing and murdered Indigenous women? ›

The root causes of the MMIW injustice include colonization and historical trauma, racism, and sexual objectifcation of Indigenous women and girls.

What is the show about Indigenous women going missing? ›

A New Docuseries, Murder in Big Horn, Spotlights the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Crisis. When Henny Scott—a 14-year-old girl from the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana—went missing in December 2018, it took the Bureau of Indian Affairs two weeks to put out a missing-persons report.

What is the show about missing native girls? ›

The MacDonald siblings have been working on documentary storytelling in the Indigenous community for years and are currently producing a documentary, “When They Were Here,” centered on families whose loved ones went missing or were found dead in the Blackfeet community in northwestern Montana.

What are the problems with Native American women? ›

Native women face barriers in the workplace, epidemic rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, and difficulty in trying to maintain the appropriate work-family balance.

How can we help missing and murdered indigenous women? ›

Support line. This website deals with topics which may negatively impact the reader due to its subject matter. If you are affected by the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQI+ people and need immediate emotional assistance, call 1-844-413-6649.

What state has the highest missing Indigenous women? ›

The states with the highest number of cases are as follows: New Mexico (78), Washington (71), Arizona (54), Alaska (52), Montana (41), California (40), Nebraska (33), Utah (24), Minnesota (20), and Oklahoma (18).

What does the black handprint over the mouth mean? ›

I had seen other Native women with this handprint at rallies and marches. I had seen some relatives with a black handprint over their mouth to raise awareness of those who experienced violence due to the oil pipelines that have man camps near our communities. I felt this symbol and meaning was honoring those stolen.

How many native kids go missing? ›

Native American children comprised 415 of the 27,733 children reported missing to the National Center in 2021. From 2012-2021, of the Native American children who were Endangered Runaways, 65% had two or more missing incidents, 45% reportedly suffered from mental illness, and 26% expressed suicidal behavior.

Who founded missing and murdered indigenous women? ›

Deborah Maytubee Denton-Shipman is the founder of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA, which assists MMIW families, tries to locate these women, and works with law enforcement on behalf of the families.

What is the most hidden tribe? ›

The Sentinelese are the most isolated tribe in the world, and have captured the imagination of millions. They live on their own small forested island called North Sentinel, which is approximately the size of Manhattan. They continue to resist all contact with outsiders, attacking anyone who comes near.

Which tribe was the last to be removed? ›

The Chickasaws were one of the last to remove. In 1837, we signed the Treaty of Doaksville with the Choctaw Nation and purchased the right for the settlement of our Chickasaw people in our own district within Choctaw Territory. Most Chickasaws removed to Indian Territory from 1837-1851.

What tribe was removed? ›

Some 100,000 American Indians forcibly removed from what is now the eastern United States to what was called Indian Territory included members of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes.

What killed over 90% of the Native American population? ›

They had never experienced smallpox, measles or flu before, and the viruses tore through the continent, killing an estimated 90% of Native Americans. Smallpox is believed to have arrived in the Americas in 1520 on a Spanish ship sailing from Cuba, carried by an infected African slave.

How much do Native American get paid a month? ›

Native American Salary
Annual SalaryMonthly Pay
Top Earners$134,500$11,208
75th Percentile$65,000$5,416
25th Percentile$33,500$2,791

Do Native Americans pay taxes? ›

Members of a federally recognized Indian tribe are subject to federal income and employment tax and the provisions of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), like other United States citizens. Determinations on taxability must be based on a review of the IRC, treaties and case law.

How many women go missing every year? ›

A quarter of a million women and teenage girls are reported missing every year in the U.S. And many of these cases are connected to male violence.

What is no more stolen sisters? ›

A national action plan to end violence against women which addresses the root causes of violence and identifies holistic, culturally-appropriate ways in which to prevent violence and to support those impacted by violence.

What is the definition of Indigenous women? ›

Perhaps you've even noticed people using it to describe themselves. “Indigenous” describes any group of people native to a specific region. In other words, it refers to people who lived there before colonists or settlers arrived, defined new borders, and began to occupy the land.

What movie is about a Native American girl found dead? ›

Taylor Sheridan has tackled the MMIW epidemic, on his hit series Yellowstone and in his 2017 film Wind River, in which a hunter (played by Jeremy Renner) and an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) investigate the death of a young Native woman whose body is found on a snowy Wyoming reservation.

What is the movie about Native American women disappearing? ›

“Hugh Dillon, Elizabeth Olsen, and Graham Greene star in Wind River.” A dead, 18-year old, Native American woman's frozen body is found on the Wind River Reservation. This scene is the catalyst for the story in Wind River, a feature film written and directed by Taylor Sheridan.

What is the documentary about Indigenous women in Montana? ›

Murder In Big Horn,” which focuses on the murders of three Indigenous women in Montana, will be available on Showtime starting Feb. 3. Luella Brien, a journalist based in Hardin who grew up on the Crow Reservation, is the central narrator in the production.

What is the Netflix show about the little girl missing? ›

In The Snow Girl, a young reporter investigates the case of a missing girl with a determination that belies her youth. It turns out that, not long before the girl's disappearance, the reporter herself suffered a major trauma, and she knows the pain that the victim's parents are suffering.

What is the new documentary about a missing girl? ›

The four-episode series from ABC News Studios is called "Still Missing Morgan" and is produced by Ridley Scott. The documentary crews began interviewing Nick's family in 2019, 24 years after her disappearance. This was also the year the Morgan Nick Foundation expanded to help even more families in Arkansas.

What is the Netflix show about the girl that goes missing on a ride? ›

The documentary tells the story of one of the most high profile child abductions in history, and you can watch the trailer for the documentary below. The trailer shows the rollercoaster ride that was the case to find Madeleine McCann. This is one of the biggest missing child cases in recent history.

What is the biggest problem for Native Americans? ›

For the past 500 years, Native Americans have faced genocide, dislocation, and various forms of physical, mental, and social abuse. These factors have led to high rates of violence, assault, suicide, poverty, and abuse among the Native American people today.

What are three facts about women in the native society? ›

Interesting Facts about the Roles of Women and Men

The women were in charge in the homes. They often owned the home and everything in it. Women were well respected in the tribes for their hard work and providing food from farming. Men and women had different roles, but generally had equal rights.

How were Native American women treated? ›

The men honored the women for being the source of life and for providing a feeling of fortitude, balance, and harmony to their lives. In Native cultures and tribes, men's and women's responsibilities were equally crucial to the functioning, even the survival, of their societies.

Why do natives wear red? ›

It has been said that red is a color that transcends the physical world and calls to the ancestors in the spirit world. For ceremony and pow-wow, Native Americans dressed their children in red as an introduction to the ancestors – calling upon them as guardians to the young.

What are stolen sisters? ›

If you haven't heard of these women, it's no surprise. They're four of the untold number of Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered, kidnapped or gone mysteriously missing. A significant number of victims are from communities that are subjected to the harmful presence of fossil fuel and mining companies.

What is the red dress movement? ›

Red Dress Day honours the memories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada. Métis artist Jaime Black helped inspire the red dress movement, where red dresses are hung from windows and trees to represent the pain and loss felt by loved ones and survivors.

What state has the most reported missing people? ›

With a few notable exceptions, the states with the highest reports of missing people are those with the largest populations. California (3,213), Texas (2,299), and Florida (1,650) are the three most populous states and have the highest number of missing persons.

What is missing indigenous women trafficking? ›

The phrase “missing and murdered indigenous women” (MMIW) refers to the hundreds of deaths and disappearances of Native American women that occur each year. A growing human and sex trafficking industry that exploits indigenous women as forced sex workers is causing these numbers to increase year after year.

How many Native American women are missing in California? ›

Sovereign Bodies Institute recorded 183 cases of missing or slain Indigenous women and girls in California, according to a 2021 report, though that's probably an undercount.

What does a red handprint on the body mean? ›

The powerful image of a red handprint has come to symbolize the Missing Murdered Indigenous Women movement as a way to represent the thousands of women who have been silenced. Beyond politics and detective work, the handprint has found its way into art and fashion as a way to raise awareness.

What does red hand over mouth mean? ›

The MMIW Red Hand

A red hand over the mouth has become the symbol of a growing movement, the MMIW movement. It stands for all the missing sisters whose voices are not heard. It stands for the silence of the media and law enforcement in the midst of this crisis.

What does a red handprint tattoo mean? ›

A red handprint, usually painted across the mouth, is a symbol that is used to indicate solidarity with missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in North America, in recognition of the fact that Native American women are up to 10 times more likely to be murdered or sexually assaulted.

How many children did Native Americans have on average? ›

The typical Native American family had around three to four children. This was small compared to the average European family at the time, which typically had around six or seven children.

What percentage of missing persons are never found? ›

According to the NamUs database, there are 600,000 people declared missing every year. Alongside that statistic, there are 4,400 unidentified bodies discovered every year. That means only 0.7333% of people who go missing are found and unable to be identified.

How many Native Americans were killed in schools? ›

Hundreds died over the course of 150 years, the Interior Department found. More than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children died over the course of 150 years in Indigenous boarding schools run by the American government and churches to force assimilation, according to a new report.

How many Native Americans were killed? ›

European settlers killed 56 million indigenous people over about 100 years in South, Central and North America, causing large swaths of farmland to be abandoned and reforested, researchers at University College London, or UCL, estimate.

What causes missing and murdered indigenous women? ›

The root causes of the MMIW injustice include colonization and historical trauma, racism, and sexual objectifcation of Indigenous women and girls.

What are the names of the missing indigenous women? ›

THE CASES: Displaying 307 profiles
  • Abigail Andrews. 28, BC, Missing.
  • Ada Brown. 41, N/A, Murdered. Unresolved.
  • Aielah Saric-Auger. 14, BC, Murdered.
  • Alannah Cardinal. 20, AB, Murdered.
  • Alberta Williams. 24, BC, Murdered.
  • Alice Netemegesic. N/A, ON, Murdered.
  • Alisha Germaine. 15, BC, Murdered.
  • Amanda Cook. 14, MB, Murdered.

What happened to most of the Native American population? ›

In the mid-19th century, nearly all American Indians were driven to the west of the Mississippi River, and forced by the U.S. government to live in Native American reservations.

How many indigenous men are missing? ›

At least 600 Indigenous men in Canada have been murdered or missing since 1974 investigation shows. Experts say the number is likely higher and needs more research.

How many native children are missing? ›

Native American children comprised 415 of the 27,733 children reported missing to the National Center in 2021. From 2012-2021, of the Native American children who were Endangered Runaways, 65% had two or more missing incidents, 45% reportedly suffered from mental illness, and 26% expressed suicidal behavior.

How many Native Americans have been found? ›

There are more than nine million Native Americans living in the United States, representing hundreds of tribal nations with diverse languages, cultures and traditions. Since time immemorial, Native Americans have lived on this continent, from the northern reaches of Alaska to the Gulf Coast of Florida.

How many Native Americans were removed? ›

Between 1830 and 1850, the U.S. government used treaties, gun- and bayonet-toting soldiers, and private contractors to remove about 100,000 Native Americans from their eastern homelands to territories west of the Mississippi River.

Is the Native American population increasing or decreasing? ›

The Native population continues to grow yearly. The Census Bureau projects that American Indian and Alaska Natives will reach 5 million individuals by 2065. At the present time there are 574 federally recognized tribes. The population of Native Americans however extends beyond those with this federal recognition.

What percentage of Indigenous Americans were killed? ›

Between 1492 and 1600, 90% of the indigenous populations in the Americas had died. That means about 55 million people perished because of violence and never-before-seen pathogens like smallpox, measles, and influenza.

How many Indigenous people were stolen? ›

It's estimated that as many as 1 in 3 Indigenous children were taken between 1910 and the 1970s, affecting most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia. This all took place under past Australian Government policies.

How many people go missing in Navajo Nation? ›

There are nearly 200 missing Native Americans from New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. The FBI is working to tackle unsolved cases | CNN.

How many babies did Native Americans have? ›

Interesting Facts about Life as a Native American Child

The typical Native American family had around three to four children. This was small compared to the average European family at the time, which typically had around six or seven children.

What does the red hand over the mouth mean? ›

A red handprint, usually painted across the mouth, is a symbol that is used to indicate solidarity with missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in North America, in recognition of the fact that Native American women are up to 10 times more likely to be murdered or sexually assaulted.

What was the Native American school scandal? ›

Tens of thousands of Native American children were removed from their communities and forced to attend boarding schools where they were compelled to change their names, they were starved and whipped, and made to do manual labor between 1819 and 1969, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Interior found.

What do Native Americans prefer to be called? ›

The consensus, however, is that whenever possible, Native people prefer to be called by their specific tribal name. In the United States, Native American has been widely used but is falling out of favor with some groups, and the terms American Indian or Indigenous American are preferred by many Native people.

What is the DNA of the Native Americans? ›

Most Indigenous American groups are derived from two ancestral lineages, which formed in Siberia prior to the Last Glacial Maximum, between about 36,000 and 25,000 years ago, East Eurasian and Ancient North Eurasian.

What is the oldest Native American tribe still alive? ›

The Hopi Indians are the oldest Native American tribe in the World.


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