The Role of Public Service in Protecting Indigenous People
November is Indigenous Peoples Heritage Month, and this year (2021), is the first year the celebration comes after President Biden formally recognized Indigenous People’s Day, October 11th, as a federal holiday– an alternative to the controversial Christopher Columbus Day. As I, a student at the Bush School of Public Service, recall the historical failures and injustices inflicted upon Indigenous people, I cannot help but think– why did it take our nation’s most prominent public servants so long to do something so simple?
Joe Biden is the first president to acknowledge the genocide and violence perpetrated against Native communities to the extent that he at least changed the name of the holiday; previously, Columbus Day celebrated a European explorer who’d contributed to a painful history of atrocities toward Indigenous folks. The activism leading to the action by President Biden is part of a larger motive to show meaningful displays of solidarity for those who have suffered. We are seeing the importance of Native voices in policy creation; the recent #NotInvisible Act & #SavannasAct was signed into law in 2020. The signing put us on “a path towards greater justice for thousands of Native women and girls who have been missing, trafficked, or taken far too soon” (Senator Cortez Masto). And still, the solidarity seems to end at the line of Biden’s executive orders: what is being done in the realm of indigenous women’s security?
The Issue: Indigenous Women’s Security
In 2016, national crime reports cited over five thousand missing American Indian and Alaskan Native women and girls. However, the Department of Justice only logged 116 cases in its missing person database. The discrepancy in the data makes it that much more difficult for tribes, communities, and policymakers to mobilize against this threat to women’s security. As future public servants, we must ask ourselves– who should be held accountable for the missing and murdered indigenous women? If there is yet another layer of trauma being added to the families whose sisters, wives, mothers, and daughters have disappeared without answers– we must acknowledge the wrongdoings against Indigenous people have never ended– even if we’ve stopped celebrating Columbus Day.
A movement calling for justice, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW), uses a red hand over the mouth to symbolize the voices that are no longer heard.
The bloodied hand points the blame onto the continued silence of the media and law enforcement throughout the oppression and subjugation of MMIW. Meanwhile, shocking statistics continue to be ignored by U.S. public servants:
Knowing that it is the public servant colleagues in my own field, which includes all of us in victim services, who are the ones failing indigenous families– is appalling. I cannot help but feel that some key lessons on the duties of public service have been missed. And is it not our job to prioritize the safety of marginalized individuals?
The ongoing genocide of Indigenous women and girls in North America seems to be a talking point only among niche activist groups. But why?
“It just seems like [the issue of MMIW] is never on my news feed, or never a big issue in my circle of friends,” said my criminal justice reform, lobbyist (25M), boyfriend. Yet, in a society so widely connected by media, I can’t help but wonder why the content served to the demographic of men– who are statistically most likely to inflict violence on women– seem to be unaware of the thousands who remain missing and/or murdered. There are even some who question the validity of a celebration of Indigenous People’s Month in the first place.
I believe we must have a change in priorities. An alarming 84% of indigenous women have experienced violence in their lifetime. If it is, in fact, the duty of public servants to keep the public informed of our issues in national security, it is a failure by public servants to not push the media to pay attention to these women’s stories. The new DHS Tribal Homeland Security Advisory Council, recently initiated by the white house, seems promising– but there are steps a citizen activist can also take to help the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
- Consider her circumstances
Is she missing from unknown circumstances? Perhaps from violence, abduction, etc.? Stay informed of local disappearances to be prepared for immediate community response.
- Look to establish protocol before she’s gone
The hours after a woman’s disappearance are crucial. Protocol should be established before an appearance to facilitate a quick mobilization of community resources.
- Contact Law Enforcement
Don’t take chances. Contact law enforcement as soon as foul play becomes a possibility. Options include tribal law enforcement, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the FBI, county police, etc.
- Keep track of her case details
When communicating with law enforcement, it is important to provide as many details of her disappearance as possible. Are there any names, dates, times, or locations you can provide? Unfortunately, law enforcement has done a mediocre job of keeping track of records, so make sure to request records of important documents, names, telephone numbers, as well as the case progress.
- Issue Community Alerts
Circulate her disappearance among the community. Make postings on bulletins or flyers providing important contact information for any tips. Establish a solid point of contact for community outreach.
- Facilitate Community Action
The Association of American Indian Affairs recommends we prioritize the wellbeing of the family. One way to show support is through organizing “vigils, searches, justice walks, or marches” to hold law enforcement accountable.
To learn more about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women cases or statistics, see the list of additional references below.
 National Crime Information Center (2018). Federal Bureau of Investigation.
 Urban Indian Health Institute, Seattle Indian Health Board (2016). Community Health Profile: National Aggregate of Urban Indian Health Program Service Areas.
Additional Case References: