How prejudice affects official search for missing Indigenous women, other women of color

While Gabby Petito's death has captured national attention, tens of thousands of people are reported missing or murdered every year in the U.S. Native women are murdered at rates 10 times the national average. In Wyoming alone, 710 indigenous people were reported missing from 2011 to 2020. Amna Nawaz discusses those statistics with Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since she was first reported missing in Wyoming earlier this month, until her remains were found later, the case of 22-year-old Gabby Petito has captured widespread media attention.

    But tens of thousands of people are reported missing or murdered every year in the U.S. And people of color don't get nearly the same level of attention, particularly indigenous and Native Americans.

    Amna Nawaz has our conversation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, in Wyoming alone, 710 indigenous people were reported missing between 2011 and 2020. In fact, although indigenous people make up only 3 percent of the state's population, they accounted for more than 21 percent of homicide victims over the last decade.

    And the problem is not limited to Wyoming. Native women are murdered at rates 10 times the national average, a pattern that's reflected in a report from Abigail Echo-Hawk. She is the chief research officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board and the director of the Urban Indian Health Institute.

    She joins me now.

    Abigail, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for making the time.

    You have called it a crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Just give us a sense of scale and scope.

    What are we talking about?

  • Abigail Echo-Hawk, Director, Urban Indian Health Institute:

    We're talking about a crisis that didn't start five years ago, 10 years ago, but one that has been going more than hundreds of years.

    We have seen Native women go missing and murdered at astronomical rates. But despite knowing this within our communities and having the stories, we see an underreporting of them in the data, which makes it harder for us to advocate for and to show the disparity that exists in our communities and the loss of our loved ones.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tell me why that underreporting is happening. What part of the system is failing?

  • Abigail Echo-Hawk:

    In 2018, my organization put out a report in which we found that law enforcement agencies were either not collecting race and ethnicity of victims.

    We found database systems that would default to white if race and ethnicity wasn't collected. Or they would visually look at somebody and decide what their race and ethnicity is. And, as a result of that, we are finding a complete underreporting.

    And, in fact, I have actually seen Native families having to fight to have their young relatives classified correctly because somebody mistook them for another race, and they weren't reported as American Indian or Alaska Native.

    It's a systematic problem. And, as a result of that, we have all of the stories of our communities, but we fight to show it in the data.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tell me about what you hear from families about their missing loved ones, their murdered loved ones.

    What kinds of stories do you hear from them about the issues they run into in reporting this and in getting justice?

  • Abigail Echo-Hawk:

    We often will hear stories of individuals who attempt to report their loved ones missing, and officers will tell them, well, maybe she just ran away. Was she out drinking? Does she do sex work?

    We see the prejudices and stereotypes against indigenous peoples and people of color play out in the underreporting, because nobody's listening to us. We also see a maze of jurisdiction that exists only for indigenous peoples in this country because of the laws that exist on tribal lands.

    I worked with a family where they actually spent three days of law enforcement trying to decide who had jurisdiction. And in that three days, their loved one remained missing, and nobody was looking for them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned these jurisdictional issues. And a lot of people think, well, that's just limited to when you're talking about tribal lands vs. non-tribal lands. But your report was based on 71 urban cities across 29 states.

    So is this an issue regardless of where you live?

  • Abigail Echo-Hawk:

    Absolutely.

    And we see this systematic issue playing out as a result of institutional structural racism. In 2018, I put out another report related to high rates of sexual violence against American Indian and Alaskan Native women in the city of Seattle.

    Out of the 94 percent of the women we talked to, 94 percent of them had been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, but only 8 percent of them saw a conviction of their rapist within the justice systems.

    We see a lack of accountability.We see a lack of an investigation and, again, the systematic issues that place the blame of our victimization on our community, instead of looking at, why are we being targeted and why are we being victimized at such high rates?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Abigail, we're talking about this because of this intense media interest in the case of Gabby Petito.

    It's part of what our late "NewsHour" anchor and colleague Gwen Ifill once referred to as missing white women syndrome, right, the spotlight that's granted to white women, but not often to women of color.

    Your organization has actually studied that, right, the comparisons between how these stories are treated. What did you find?

  • Abigail Echo-Hawk:

    In our report, we actually found, of the cases that we looked at, 95 percent of them weren't covered in the media.

    And this didn't mean that there weren't videos. It didn't mean that there wasn't active ways to put this in the media. It's just nobody's cared. And I actually contributed to the report in Wyoming that showed more than 700 people missing.

    And that report, which came out in January of this year, again had very little coverage. And, as the indigenous community, we mourn for the family of anybody whose loved one goes missing and murdered. But what we demand is equity in this kind of coverage, because the lives of our women also matter.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In just the few seconds we have left, what does it take to fix this, to change this?

  • Abigail Echo-Hawk:

    We need to see not only media coverage, but we need to see changes in policies. We need to see programming and interventions to understand that, as Native women and Native people, we aren't at higher risk of going missing and murdered because there's something wrong with us.

    We are at higher risk because there are systems of inequity in this country that place us at higher risk. And those are the systems we have to address. And it's going to take the entire community of the United States to come together and do that with us.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, joining us tonight.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Abigail Echo-Hawk:

    Thank you for having me.

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