For Women's History Month, Dallas activists discuss crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women
Over 65,000 people identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native in North Texas, according to the 2020 Census. The 20th century relocation act that brought many of these families to the city is part of what has contributed to the alarming rate of missing and murdered indigenous women.
As Women’s History Month kicks off, the Dallas Public Library hosted an online event Thursday recognizing an overlooked group in North Texas: missing and murdered indigenous women.
Four out of five American Indian and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence, the National Institute of Justice reports. American Indian women are murdered at rates that are 10 times the national average, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Jodi Voice Yellowfish is an Oak Cliff resident and indigenous advocate who is a member of the Muscogee Creek, Oglala Lakota, and Cherokee tribes. She leads MMIW TX Rematriate, a Dallas-based organization that helps indigenous families search for and bring home missing and murdered relatives.
“Families don’t always function well in crisis mode,” she said. “So we’re there to fill in the gap and stand in that space between not knowing how to navigate the system with law enforcement and filing reports or helping navigate media and crafting flyers safely.”
The disproportionate rate of missing and murdered indigenous women is a centuries-long issue. It stems from numerous Indian removal and relocation acts, according to MMIW TX Rematriate member Sandra Blackbear Ramirez, who’s part of the Kiowa and Apache tribes of Oklahoma.
The 1956 Indian Relocation Act was a campaign that urged American Indians to leave reservations and assimilate into urban areas in an effort to eliminate Indian country and acquire marketable land.
“This vision that eventually there would be no more BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs), no more tribal governments, no more reservations and no more Native Americans,” Blackbear-Ramirez said. “And of course, Native Americans were not given the choice of where to move but told where to move.”
Dallas: A relocation site
Dallas was one of the cities used to relocate American Indians from Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico and reservations in other states. By 1970, more than 20,000 indigenous people from over 90 tribes had moved to the area.
The mass migration had a profound impact that lasts today: more than two-thirds of indigenous people live in cities rather than reservations or trust lands. But Blackburn-Ramirez — whose family relocated to Dallas — said many American Indians who moved to major cities faced hardships.
They struggled with homesickness, a loss of familial and cultural ties, insufficient health and behavioral resources, and low-income jobs with little opportunity for advancement.
“This makes it difficult to live in an urban area like Dallas with much higher expenses than where home might be,” she said.
It directly impacted the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) because city-dwelling American Indians had fewer ties to tribal law enforcement, their communities and allyship because of their reduced numbers. Additionally, many American Indians are vulnerable to cycles of violence and abuse given their overrepresentation in the foster care system and generational cycles of poverty and homelessness.
Looking for solutions
Michael Tongkeamha, who is part of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma and works with MMIW Texas Rematriate, said part of addressing the issue of MMIW is rebuilding a relationship with local law enforcement like the Dallas Police Department.
“That’s a trust there that is extremely broken in our Native American community,” he said. “But it is a trust that we need to reestablish because in order to have access to resources for survivors, we need to have great contacts.”
One of the most glaring challenges regarding MMIW is the difficulty in acquiring accurate data, Yellowfish said. The Urban Indian Health Institute says of the 5,712 cases of MMIW reported in 2016, only 116 were logged by the Department of Justice.
Especially given the difficulty in accessing data, Yellowfish said she always centers the families and people in her work.
“Something that we deal with in this crisis work is humanizing people, not just looking at our people as numbers and percentages and stats,” the advocate said.
That focus on humanity is why MMIW Texas Rematriate typically begins and ends every talk with a prayer to honor the spirits who have left them. On Tuesday night’s Zoom call, Tongkeamha shared a closing prayer to end the hour-long event.
“...May the prayers of our ancestors continue through the actions of today. May we continue practicing their prayer in our daily life. May our future generations be bold and continue to fight for our Native American way of life.”
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