Stories about increasing numbers of missing or murdered indigenous women are more than a news headline, a social media campaign or a current cultural issue. For Native Americans, it’s a close reality.“We all know somebody,” said Tai Simpson, when asked if she, as a Nez Perce woman, personally knew women affected by the issue.
Simpson is a social change associate for the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence in Boise. She will speak about factors that contribute to the problem and lead a conversation Saturday at the Nez Perce National Historical Park at Spalding about how communities can protect those who are most vulnerable.
Violence against Native women isn’t new, it’s been going on since colonization, Simpson said, but it’s now happening at higher rates than in the past, and law enforcement hasn’t responded to the growing crisis.
Indigenous women suffer from especially high rates of violence, Simpson said. Statistics from the National Institute of Justice show that 84 percent of Native American and Alaska Native women have endured violence in their lifetime and, of these women, 56 percent have experienced sexual violence and 55 percent have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner.
These are among the few documented statistics. While the public is beginning to recognize the trend of indigenous women disappearing at high and increasing rates, there is a lack of information on what, exactly, is happening.
When you go in search of how many women are affected by this problem, the numbers simply aren’t there, Simpson said. And if there are numbers, they don’t match up. In 2016, for example, the Urban Indian Health Institute found 5,712 cases reported of missing indigenous women and girls. Of these, only 116 were logged in the Department of Justice missing persons database. Discrepancies like this permeate the system, she said.
Based on research and conversations among those working on the problem, Simpson said, the main reasons for data discrepancies appear to be a lack of interorganizational collaboration and implicit bias, or negative narratives regarding Native people.
When a crime involves an indigenous person in Idaho, at least five agencies generally are involved, Simpson explained — tribal law enforcement, city and county law enforcement, Idaho State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. If a crime takes place in more than one location or involves an individual from another location, additional law enforcement agencies become involved.
That’s a lot of people to coordinate. Even if investigators are highly motivated to address a problem, the process doesn’t move quickly or efficiently. When cultural animosity is present — both among agencies and toward indigenous people — the process quickly comes to a halt, Simpson said.
Some cases are simply not investigated, such as in this scenario that Simpson offered: A woman leaves for an urban area with someone she knows and her family loses contact with her. She isn’t listed as missing because the law enforcement agency they contact assumes she has chosen to leave home and cut ties, rather than explore the possibility she might have become a victim of human trafficking.
Negative views or incorrect assumptions about indigenous people can affect the issue in a variety of ways. Concerns brought to light by indigenous people often aren’t acted on or taken seriously, Simpson said. She explained that indigenous people often transfer information about the community — including who is a potential danger, who is at risk and who is missing — through traditional practices like a visit to the sweat lodge. Stories shared, though reliable, may not be provable.
“It’s known,” Simpson said. “It’s not on paper, but it’s known. But when we go to law enforcement, it’s relegated to hearsay. It’s considered a groundless accusation.”
Simpson is involved in supporting a legislative measure aimed at recognizing the problem and exploring collaborative solutions. The bill, HCR-033, acknowledges missing and murdered indigenous persons as a crisis in Idaho and designates May 5 as a day of awareness. Citizens in support can write their representatives and encourage them to vote in favor, she said.
Other possible solutions are cultural, Simpson said. She’s hopeful the conversation raised during her Saturday talk will help empower the tribal community to protect its future.
“We’ve been resilient,” she said of the Nez Perce Tribe. “Let’s ask ourselves, ‘What are the things we relied on in the past?’ ”
Cultural solutions might include creating more cultural connections for Nez Perce children, like storytelling and digging camas roots, which are shown to create stronger community ties that better protect all its members, Simpson said. Another solution might include drawing closer to those suffering from addiction, mental illness and other difficult circumstances. In the past, Simpson said, struggling individuals would be surrounded by community rather than isolated and pushed away.
Whatever the response, it should be indigenous-led, Simpson said. Well-meaning people outside the culture can easily and unknowingly step on toes, further complicating the effort. However, all will benefit from addressing the problem.
“I believe that if you end violence against the most marginalized, you can end violence everywhere,” Simpson said.
UPDATE: The talk “Protecting the Sacred: A Primer on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” by Tai Simpson has been postponed and will be held at a later date at the Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Protecting the Sacred: A Primer on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” by Tai Simpson.
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center, 39063 Highway 95, Spalding.