Indigenous women continue to disappear across the U.S., including northern Arizona

Katie Dobrydney

Native American women and girls continue to disappear from reservations across the United States, including reservations in Montana and even in Canada. Here in Northern Arizona, the Navajo Nation is also experiencing this issue.

According to Sharon Doctor, the director of Native American Student Services and a member of the Navajo Nation, some women and girls are believed to end up in situations involving human trafficking. They are being speculated to have been kidnapped on false promises from traffickers attempt to provide them hope of leaving the reservation and finding a better life.

Doctor says the reason why some women are forced to leave is because living conditions on the reservation are often poor, and the women are desperate to leave for something better.

“Vulnerable people become prey, criminals take advantage,” said Doctor.

Very little documentation has been kept of the women disappearing from the reservations. FPD declined to comment, and FBI Public Affairs Specialist Jill McCabe shared some information that is already available to the public.

Some of that information includes that the Indian Country Crimes Unit of the FBI says the “Department of Justice and Bureau of Indian Affairs [work together] to provide training for federal, state, county, and tribal law enforcement officers.”

However, Ashlynne Mike, 11, went missing from the Navajo Nation in 2016. Because the Navajo Nation Police Department thought it was the responsibility of the FBI to file the missing person’s report, the Amber Alert for Mike was hours late. The alert wasn’t put out until eight hours after she went missing, because there was a disconnect between the Navajo Nation Police and the FBI in understanding their roles.

Esquire magazine reported in regards to child abduction that, “70 percent of those kidnapped are killed within three hours of their capture.” Mike was found murdered after being preyed on by Tom Begaye, who was a new member to the community at the time.

This is one case of a girl who has gone missing. There are more who remain missing and few people are looking for them or making official note of their disappearance, which usually tends to just be their families Doctor stated.

“The federal government is not providing enough support,” Doctor said.

She explained why a stronger police force does not exist for the reservations. Being the largest reservation in the nation and due to the understaffed police, there is a serious lack of patrolling and safety for the Navajo. The Navajo Nation stretches over 27,000 square miles.

Doctor said one remedy could include the state representatives working with tribal leaders and sketching a plan to enhance the quality of life of people on the reservation.

She mentioned that the strategy needs to be taken from a macro approach, involving spreading awareness and the creation of abduction prevention technology. She also wants the reservation to be self-sustaining. Some of their income now comes from casinos, but Doctor believes there needs to be other means of bringing in revenue.

Alisse-Ali Joseph, an applied indigenous studies lecturer and member of the Choctaw Nation, explained that to make long-lasting changes the jurisdictional issues in regards to the government needs to be significantly revised.

Today, tribal governments cannot try non-Native American people in their courts, which creates an imbalance in their ability of providing justice to some cases. The FBI takes control of these situations.

“How can we better improve these relationships?” said Joseph.

According to Joseph, one positive change is the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) of 2013. The VAWA was first signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

It granted $1.6 billion to investigations on women’s domestic abuse, allowing tribal courts to pursue domestic violence cases against non-native people.

Joseph also mentioned that this is crucial ,because 80 percent of Native American women have said they experienced domestic violence.

Heidi Heitkamp, a junior Senator for North Dakota, introduced a bill last October to help Native Americans. However, that bill has not made it out of the committee.

Joseph further explained many Native American people believe that documentation on missing people is inadequate and felt the act falls short of its original intentions. She also questioned the effectiveness of the law.

“Is it going to go anywhere? Will this act make any real change?” Joseph said.

In addition, she emphasized that the number of women and girls missing is significant and believed the federal government isn’t “navigating the situation.”

Joseph also mentioned that because the Native American population is small, especially when categorized by individual nations, people living outside of the reservations tend to ignore what goes on there.

“People need to be mindful when talking about us by not clumping all Natives together, and looking at individual culture,” Joseph said.

Native American women’s abuse and disappearance isn’t a new event, both have been occurring for hundreds of years, however receives little coverage and many are only now becoming aware of it. The national rate for domestic violence towards Native American women is 50 percent higher than the national average according to the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Joseph stated if she wasn’t passionate about being aware of the latest in terms of these topics, she wouldn’t know about them either. Joseph also said national news doesn’t cover the issue of missing Native American women and the media has instead only been focusing on the Dakota Access Pipe Line, predominantly because of celebrity influence on this issue.

Joseph and Doctor are in agreement that generation after generation of poverty, substance abuse, lack of healthcare and unemployment have caused Native American women’s vulnerability and lack of choices to grow immensely.

A lot of these problems stem from colonization according to Doctor, who calls it a “cultural disruption” in many, if not all, Native American communities.

Colonization led to not only a loss in indigenous population, but made for a drastic presence of alcoholism in some people as well. In addition, homelessness is another result. Doctor said she believes that in Flagstaff specifically, many Native American people don’t want to endure the conditions that living on the reservation brings, but can’t afford housing costs in Flagstaff either.

Doctor also believes in the need for more people advocating this issue and being proactive.

“People usually don’t act until something happens to someone we know. It shouldn’t take that for us to get involved,” Doctor said.