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Efforts To Solve Cases Of Missing And Murdered Native American Women Face Historical Roadblocks

Woman Wearing Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women Mask
Mark Thiessen
Associated Press
Jeannie Hovland, the deputy assistant secretary for Native American Affairs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, poses with a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women mask, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, in Anchorage, Alaska.

Native American and Indigenous women and girls have been disappearing for decades in the U.S. It wasn't until this year that serious national efforts mobilized to investigate.

An Indian Affairs Task Force has been created to help solve the thousands of cold cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The University of North Texas Health Science Center is using its forensic crime laboratory to try and help figure out what's happening and investigate hundreds of cases.

KERA's Justin Martin spoke the history of these cases with Michaela Madrid, a member of the Lower Brule Lakota Sioux Tribe. She's also the operations manager for the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an organization that focuses on gender and sexual violence against indigenous people.

Interview Highlights:

How Far Back Do These Cases Go?

Prior to contact with kind of European colonialists, there wasn't really much instance of rape or sexual violence against Native women.

We really saw this become prevalent with colonization, and as the settlers were coming over to try to get land for themselves here in the United States.

Why These Cases Haven't Been Solved?

When it comes to criminal jurisdiction in Indian country, it's really a case-by-case basis.

So there's this really dynamic interplay between federal, state and tribal jurisdictions. When it comes to crime, it depends on who the victim is, who the perpetrator is and also where that crime was committed.

There's a lot of these loopholes and gray areas when it comes to crimes in Indian country, that these cases just fall through the cracks, and not only do they fall through the cracks, but there are predators who know and understand that these loopholes and gray area exist, so they intentionally perpetuate harm in these areas because they know that they are less likely to be caught.

What's Law Enforcement's Role In Allowing These Cases To Go Unsolved?

A lot of times it's due to a lack of funding. There's just not enough folks around to have the capacity to be able to answer to these calls. A lot of times tribal jurisdictions are in really rural areas, lots of travel time for these county sheriffs to get out to.

So it's an issue of not enough capacity, and then it's also just an issue of inaction as well; in some cases, police violence and police rape.

Lately there's been a lot of state-led task forces and even federal-led task forces on this issue. It's a good intention, but we have to look at the impact over the intention because for a long time, when it comes to Native Americans, how the federal government and all governments have responded is that 'we know what's best for you Native Americans, we can fix your problem.'

What we're seeing with these tasks versus is kind of that same mentality that we're here and going to fix your problems instead of engaging us to come up with our own solutions.

Trusting The Government

So this really is, like I said, so many different mini-issues that create this issue and mistrust is a really big thing on both sides.

Law enforcement doesn't always trust that the Native Americans who are telling them and reporting to them are telling the truth. So there's this distrust there, and then there's distrust from the Native American communities because there's been all this inaction and not only has there been inaction, there has been direct harm.

Back in the times of the Indian child boarding schools, it was the social workers that would come to these Indian homes to remove children from the houses. And, a lot of times when individuals have their child taken from them, they're going to go against that, they're not gonna let that happen without reacting.

What ended up happening is a lot of law enforcement officers would accompany the social workers to remove the children from the home. That has such a lasting impact on the trust because every time historically that Native Americans have trusted the government it hasn't turned out the right way.

We hope as we progress and get better, that the federal government is going to do better, not kind of repeat some of the harms, but also you have to be compassionate and understanding that it's going to take a while for that trust to build.

What's unfortunate is a lot of times we hear from law enforcement and government officials that like, 'Oh, these Natives, they just need to get over it, they just need to trust us, they just need to get over it.'

What my response is always, well, what are you doing to show that you've gotten over it, that you've kind of rectified these historic wrongs.

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Justin Martin at You can follow Justin on Twitter @MisterJMart.

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Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.