Local activist Lisa Tiger’s world changed overnight in 2007 when she received a phone call telling her that her 18-year-old daughter, Shelleigh Poor Bear, had been murdered by her boyfriend. That boyfriend, who was convicted in the case in 2009, had planned the kidnapping of Poor Bear, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, for weeks before he took her to a motel room and stabbed her more than 10 times in the presence of their 10-month-old baby.
“It was devastating,” Tiger said. “Never in my life had I expected to get a call like that.”
Unfortunately, Poor Bear’s death was not an isolated incident. Native American women are disproportionately affected by violence: According to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, 1 in 2 Native women and girls is a victim of some form of sexual violence. And based on 2017 data from the FBI, about 1.8 percent of people reported as missing in the United States are Native.
It is not uncommon to hear of a Native American family dealing with the disappearance of a mother, sister or daughter, only to learn months or years later that her body has been recovered.
Other times, the fate of the missing woman remains unknown.
There are many contributing reasons why tragedies such as these occur so often with Native American women.
Some say one factor is that the Supreme Court ruled that tribal courts do not possess jurisdictional powers over non-Native people.
“I believe … non-Native men are taking advantage of the law between the tribal and federal government … knowing that the tribal laws can’t touch them” said Murell Platero, a Santa Fe Indian School senior.
Additionally, the 1968 federal Indian Civil Rights Act dictates that Indian tribal governments cannot pass or enforce laws that violate certain individual rights and limits the maximum punishment for any crime to a $5,000 fine and up to one year in prison.
In essence, this sets up a power struggle between local law enforcement agencies, which have no jurisdiction on a reservation, and the FBI, which has jurisdiction only in certain cases. This can lead to communication issues that end up making investigations much less effective.
“The ongoing systematic violence continues in our tribal communities through jurisdictional issues, late Amber alerts, response times and overall communication problems between the federal government and nations, pueblos,” Cheyenne Antonio, sex trafficking project coordinator for the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, told Generation Next. “Miscommunication in the bureaucracy has led to an extremely ineffective system.”
Another contributing factor, some say, is the lack of media coverage.
“It’s never gone over five minutes [of coverage] when it is brought up on the TV news,” said Makayla Manygoats, a senior at Santa Fe Indian School. “I never see any person help or put in the effort to at least spread [awareness of] the issue.”
Another issue is the confusion over exactly how many women have gone missing. The FBI reported that 633 Native American women were reported missing in 2017, yet many say that is severely underestimated. Some women seem to get lost in the system, while other cases are never reported because of other problems, including distrust in the legal system. The FBI releases its database for people reported as missing and breaks the information down by race but does not have a category for Native Americans.
“It’s bizarre. Do they just not care?” Tiger asked.
The effects of this epidemic, Manygoats said, can be devastating to Native communities.
“Native American culture revolves around native women. … When a Native woman has gone missing, the circle of life is incomplete,” she said, adding that because Native women are birth givers and healers, to lose them is to lose an important aspect of Native culture.
These crimes also instill a deep sense of fear into Native circles, especially families. Many parents worry about their children, both on and off the reservation, Tiger said.
The lack of attention has sent a negative message to Native communities nationwide, marginalizing Native American people even more, Tiger added.
“We have to fight for our rights,” she said. ‘It’s like we don’t exist in our own country.”
For this reason, some activists have taken matters into their own hands, creating initiatives and proposals to combat the problem. Among the ideas: creating watch parties when someone goes missing, for example, or encouraging tribes to create their own database in order to accurately keep track of their people.
Raising awareness is also a goal. Platero said such initiatives as the #MeToo Movement and the REDress Project can inform and educate the general public. With knowledge, change is possible, advocates say.
There is reason for hope.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., recently reintroduced Savanna’s Act, first introduced in 2017 by former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. The act would clarify the responsibilities of federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement agencies in regards to responding to cases of missing and murdered Indians, as well as increase coordination and communication among those entities to ensure information is entered into a database. The bill is named after Savanna Greywind, a pregnant 22-year-old member of the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota who was murdered in 2017.
In March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill into law to develop a task force to investigate the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women in New Mexico. That task force will review and make recommendations on how to increase state resources for reporting and identifying victims.
Organizers of the annual Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque last month also focused on the issue of missing and murdered Native American women.
For Tiger, every little step forward suggests a chance for change. Her daughter’s death, she said, was the “worst pain” anyone could experience.
The way things are now, she said, “If you’re lucky, you can find who killed them and recover a body.”
Seneca Johnson is a junior at Santa Fe Indian School. Contact her at email@example.com.