Indigenous people have long experienced disproportionately high rates of violence compared to other Americans, and those who perpetrate violence against our communities often do so using federal laws and legal loopholes.
In May 2021, President Joe Biden designated May 5th as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day to recognize American Indian and Alaska Native people who have lost their lives to violence.
This and previous national acknowledgements of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) and missing and murdered Indigenous persons (MMIP) began with tribal advocates and allies who created ceremonies to honor those lost and who took action to advocate for changes to federal, state, and local policy.
One piece of legislation that tribal advocates and allies successfully worked to enact is called the Violence Against Women Act or VAWA. Before VAWA was enacted in 1994, certain types of violence against Indigenous people were difficult to prosecute. Why? The federal laws at the time said that the federal government had the sole ability to prosecute crimes- like domestic violence and sexual assault- that happened to Indigenous people by non-Indigenous people on reservation lands.
These pre-VAWA federal laws were harmful in many ways. Firstly, they resulted in more violence against Indigenous people. Because the federal courts systematically refused to hear court cases that involved violent crimes against Indigenous people by non-Indigenous people on reservation land, the people who committed the crimes were never punished. Also, the victims of these crimes (mostly Indigenous women and two spirit relatives) never got the justice they deserved. This resulted in violence that was met with no justice, which resulted in more unpunished violence. Secondly, these pre-VAWA federal laws did not respect tribal sovereignty.
The passage of the federal Violence Against Women Act increased the likelihood of justice because it expands the ability of tribes to prosecute certain violent crimes committed by non-Natives against Indigenous people that have taken place on reservations.
Indigenous people have fought back and taken the crisis of MMIP into our own hands to bring justice to our stolen women, two spirit peoples, and men. By creating the MMIW and MMIP Movements, Indigenous advocates and allies have raised awareness of injustice and helped bring about positive changes for all of our peoples; however, there is still a need to carry on this work.
So, what can you do?
- Contact your legislator – Write to, call, or visit your Members of Congress. It is most effective to write to or call your Member of Congress when a bill will soon be voted on since they can take immediate action. Make sure to include the specific bill number if you can. You can find your Representatives’ email addresses on their website, or their website may have a form for you to fill out. Not sure who your representative is? Search your zip code on this website to learn who represents you in Congress.
- Learn more about how the 3 federal branches of the U.S. government work and how you can be an effective advocate for change.
- To ensure that MMIW are remembered – On May 5th, National Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person’s Awareness Day, be mindful of the families that have worked diligently to get this day recognized. To do this, wear red, host a candlelight vigil in your community, or a prayer circle.
- Use your voice – Share your stories, pictures, videos, and other things with each other. We can help keep the MMIW movement going strong. Speak to your friends and consider using social media as an outlet to remember MMIW and to keep the movement going. To learn more about what you can do go here.
- Listen to or read about President Biden’s proclamation about National MMIP Awareness Day here
- Visit the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center to find out about events, legislature news, and resources to learn more about assistance and advocacy opportunities