Layers and Layers of Grief upon Grief: The Epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

MMIW blog post

By Iva GreyWolf, PhD, and Charlotte McCloskey, PhD

As Native American psychologists, we appreciate the opportunity to share little known information about our communities of origin with our fellow psychologists. We are privileged and honored to give voice to the facts of a heartbreaking epidemic impacting indigenous communities throughout the United States.

Native American people are often overlooked, considered extinct, romanticized, forgotten, ignored and bear the burden of negative stereotypes. Belonging to a socially invisible community has consequences beyond being misunderstood and stereotyped.  It can lead to much more dire outcomes – specifically, the public disregard of the epidemic of violence against Native American women and girls reflects passive cultural genocide.

According to the Urban Indian Health Institute’s 2018 report, data from the National Crime Information Center shows that there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 2016. However, the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported murder as the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women and that rates of violence on reservations can be up to ten times higher than the national average.

Data on missing and murdered indigenous women are hard to find in part because communication between tribal, state and federal agencies is not coordinated and there is often mislabeling or lack of documentation. Overall, data on this epidemic are grossly under-reported, under-examined, under-researched, and under-prosecuted.

In 2018, the Society of Indian Psychologists published a white paper regarding missing and murdered indigenous women. The following is a quote from this statement:

“In the past three decades, over 1000 Indigenous women and girls in Canada were murdered or disappeared without a trace (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 2014; Mt. Pleasant, 2016). In 2004, Amnesty International released the first comprehensive report on violence against Indigenous women called No More Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada. In 2016, the Government of Canada initiated a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; however, across the socially constructed Canadian and United States (U.S.) border, NO comparable accountability system exists to accurately document the missing or lost lives of Indigenous Women and Girls. The limited availability of U.S. statistics on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls reflects their experiences with violence are not being fully recognized, understood, legitimized, or communicated to policymakers. This violence has affected and profoundly unsettles entire Indigenous communities, including the often-forgotten men (Innes, 2015; Dylan et al., 2008), transgendered, and Two-Spirited peoples.”

The invisibility of women of color pervades the media. Their experiences with violence are often overlooked, underreported, or not reported at all. Perhaps, the experience of violence for women of color is expected and no longer considered newsworthy by the mainstream media if it is noticed at all.  Perhaps, this reflects the long-lasting effects of colonialism on indigenous women.

The SIP statement continues…

“According to Senator Mark Daines (2017), “American Indian women face murder rates that are more than ten times the national average murder rate.” Homicide is the third leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) women and girls between the ages of 10 and 24 (Daines, 2017). In a 2016 Department of Justice report, Rosay (2016) indicated in the lifetime of AI/AN women, 56.1% have experienced sexual violence, 84% physical violence, and 53.6% severe physical violence. Of those Indigenous women, 66% had experienced psychological violence and 49% had experienced stalking (Rosay, 2016). Of the women reporting experiencing violence in their lifetime, 97% reported at least one incident of violence perpetrated by a non-AI/AN and 96% reported at least one incident of sexual violence perpetrated by a non-AI/AN (Rosay, 2016)…. We want our Indigenous Women and Girls to be recognized as daughters, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunties, and nieces and the crimes against them documented and addressed.”

We live in a democracy and when the people take note of these human rights violations, it can lead our representatives to strengthen laws to protect the vulnerable.

While these signs are encouraging, there is more work to do. Here is how you can help missing and murdered Native American women: 

  • Seek out the facts and share them within your circles of influence. Resources are provided below. This should not be a conversation that remains within Native American communities. Giving voice to those that have been silenced honors their humanity and begins the healing. This is not just a Native women’s issue; it is a human rights issue and it will take all of us to come to a solution to save lives and promote healing.
  • Serve those impacted by this violence. Legal protections are a beginning, but psychologists are needed to help those impacted in the wake of this epidemic, from the rare survivors of trafficking to the motherless children to the grieving families and communities. It is of paramount importance to gather and share the facts on the magnitude of missing and murdered Indigenous women to garner support for psychological services for the many that have been wounded by these losses. Psychologists can also identify or conduct relevant and culturally respectful research on complex trauma and impart culturally relevant counseling services for complex trauma.
  • Support service providers. Our few providers for this underserved population are bombarded with messages of tragedy and loss on an almost daily basis. We need to implement strategies of support for the providers as well as the many struggling with grief. We need to address the layers of grief, historical trauma, intergenerational trauma and present-day traumas and losses that are compounded by the intersectionality of culture, race, and poverty. The time to act is now.

To learn more, follow #MMIW and #JusticeForNativeWomen on social media.

Additional resources:

House Committee on the Judiciary (n.d.) The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019 https://judiciary.house.gov/sites/democrats.judiciary.house.gov/files/documents/VAWA%20fact%20sheet%203.7.19%20final.pdf?utm_source=phplist1079&utm_medium=email&utm_content=HTML&utm_campaign=House+passage+of+VAWA2019

Ross, R. J., GreyWolf, I., Tehee, M., Henry, S. M., & Cheromiah, M. (2018). Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Society of Indian Psychologists. doi: 10.17605/OSF.IO/4KMNS https://nebula.wsimg.com/574224b01991d73a1364b46ad4eea0a5?AccessKeyId=3BBC34B5002E1951E7BE&disposition=0&alloworigin=1

Turner, S. (May 12, 2019). Lawmakers seek protections for Native women, children. Albuquerque Journal: https://www.abqjournal.com/1314628/lawmakers-seek-protections-for-native-women-children.html

Urban Indian Health Institute (2018). Missing and murdered indigenous women and girls: A snapshot of data from 71 urban cities in the United States. Retrieved from: https://www.uihi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Missing-and-Murdered-Indigenous-Women-and-Girls-Report.pdf 

Biographies:

Iva GreyWolf, PhD, has 40 years of experience delivering behavioral health services primarily to Native people in rural and remote areas. She is committed to serving the underserved. She is a trainer/consultant nationally and internationally on a variety of behavioral health issues such as complex trauma, co-occurring disorders, grief, clinical supervision and resilience. Dr. GreyWolf has served as a member and chair of the American Psychological Association Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs and as a member and chair of the APA Committee on Rural Health, as a commissioner on the Alaska Commission for Behavioral Health Certification and on the Alaska Board of Psychologists. GreyWolf is an APA fellow. She currently serves on CEMRRAT2, the APA Commission on Ethnic Minority Recruitment Retention and Training. Dr. GreyWolf is president–elect of the Society of Indian Psychologists.

Charlotte McCloskey, PhD, is the KCVAMC Local Recovery Coordinator and a staff psychologist in the outpatient Mental Health Clinic.  She is also the chair of the Multicultural Committee. Dr. McCloskey has interests in research and assessment, as well as special interests in issues related to diversity. She is currently an adjunct research faculty member of the Center for American Indian Community Health at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She has VA provider status in Prolonged Exposure for PTSD, Cognitive Processing Therapy, Interpersonal Psychotherapy for Depression, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia and is experienced in providing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety and/or Depression, as well as other evidence-based treatments. Dr. McCloskey’s theoretical orientation is integrative and reflects multicultural awareness, Psychodynamic and Cognitive Behavioral Theory. Dr. McCloskey received her postdoctoral training at the Kansas City VA Medical Center and has also previously worked in the KCVAMC Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinical Team (PCT). Dr. McCloskey is also a member of the APA Committee on Women in Psychology.

Image source: Photo by Nicole Geri on Unsplash

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