Searching for MMIWG Relatives and Racial Justice for Tribes

Recently, major networks highlighted two cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG): Arden Pepion, a 3-year-old from the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana (still missing), and Carla Yellow Bird from the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota (found, murdered).

Native American families and tribal communities are left feeling isolated in their search for loved ones, particularly when they go missing outside of tribal lands. These horrific and frequent cases are not new to Indigenous communities but rather a result of colonization and the complex web of jurisdictional governance between tribes, states and federal officials.

Federally recognized tribes have a nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. government. The National Congress of American Indians describes this as “the obligation of the federal government to protect tribal self-governance, lands, assets, resources and treaty rights, and to carry out the directions of federal statutes and court cases.” States are also part of the equation – and this three-pronged approach to justice often collides, leaves gaps or overlaps, generating a convoluted maze for Native families to negotiate during a crisis.

The Department of Justice and more recently the Department of the Interior have finally created special groups to help address missing and murdered Indian persons (MMIP).

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland  created the Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) in April this year. “The new MMU unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize [MMIP] cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families,” Secretary Haaland said.

Operation Lady Justice launched in 2019 established seven teams to review MMIP cold cases in collaboration with tribal, federal, state and local entities. Also affirming the U.S. government’s failure to guide funding and resources toward these efforts, President Biden said, “Our treaty and trust responsibilities require our best efforts, and our concern for the well-being of these fellow citizens require us to act with urgency.”

Indeed, the utmost urgency drives Native families who are seeking their MMIW relatives. Not a day goes by without a social media alert about MMIPs and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and Two Spirits (MMIWG2S). Tribal communities are acutely aware of the immediacy needed after an MMIW call out and that it takes quick action by many to respond to the crisis.

Recently while quickly scrolling through Facebook, I was stopped by a familiar face smiling back at me. A young Native girl, whose parents and grandmother I value as an essential part of my community, was missing. I helped in the local search that day and, as a mother of three grown daughters, my heart was heavy. Fortunately, this case concluded same day with a “she’s been found safe,” but so many more go unresolved and fuel the mourning of a life unlived.

Native families and tribal communities have mobilized throughout this chaos to support one another in finding their MMIW relatives, even as they await justice and recognition by state and federal governments of the catastrophic failures in protecting their citizens. To learn more about how you can help in your community, please visit www.niwrc.org.

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