Indigenous communities bring attention to missing and murdered women and girls

Molly Kehoe






Illustration by Grace Landsberg

Jeneile Luebke is a survivor of an abusive relationship. Sasha Maria Suarez is a survivor of sexual violence. Cherie Thunder was attacked as a college student and then raped years later.

I set out to interview these people based on their careers in research, academia and advocacy surrounding the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis in Wisconsin. Only in our conversations did they each tell me about their personal experiences with violence, each in an effort to explain the prevalence of this crisis. The story of the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis is not one that can be told by looking at data, but rather through narratives of resilience from survivors and their families.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul defines this crisis as the “significantly disproportionate impact for missing persons cases, as well as homicide cases, within Indigenous communities.” Homicide rates alone are 10 times higher for Native women than the national average. According to the Center for Public Integrity, an independent journalism organization, more than half of Native women have reported that they were sexually assaulted. 

Wisconsin State Rep. Jeff Mursau (R-Crivitz) of the 36th Assembly District proposed legislation in 2019 that would create a missing and murdered Indigenous women task force.

In his role as chair of the State and Tribal Relations Committee, Mursau’s Indigenous constituents brought this crisis to his attention. 

“We just thought that maybe it is a little bit of a bigger concern than we can deal with in our committee itself,” Mursau says. He and his colleagues subsequently wrote a bill for the creation of a task force that ultimately did not pass in the Assembly, but Kaul decided to move forward with the proposal anyway. 

“My view was that this issue was too important to wait in moving forward with, so we began working in conjunction with a number of activists as well as leaders of tribal governments to ultimately create this task force,” Kaul says. 

A byproduct of stark cultural differences and disrespect, the history of sexual violence and trafficking by European colonizers is one of erasure as much as the assimilation boarding schools are, says Richard Monette, a professor in the UW–Madison Law School. He believes that both tactics work in tandem with the goal of destroying Indigenous livelihood. 

“There shouldn’t be anything surprising about that at all,” he says. “What maybe is surprising is that it isn’t more widespread.”

The crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women has been overlooked by Wisconsin’s government for generations, leaving families and communities with historical trauma, says Luebke, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and postdoctoral fellow in the UW–Madison School of Nursing. Despite systematic dismissal, Indigenous women like Luebke have not allowed themselves to be engulfed by the immensity and darkness of the crisis. The images of Native women with a red hand painted over their mouths are intended to be representative of both the silencing of the crisis and the momentum to bring it out of the dark.

One of the reasons the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis has remained in the dark is the lack of media attention. Journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term “missing white woman syndrome” to explain the media’s disproportionate fascination with stories of missing and murdered white women compared with their Black and Indigenous counterparts.

“Most Native women that you talk to will eventually hint at the fact that most other Native women they know are survivors of sexual violence; it is a very prevalent issue that doesn’t get a lot of attention,” says Suarez, a White Earth Ojibwe descendant and assistant professor in UW–Madison’s history department and American Indian studies program.

“Most Native women that you talk to will eventually hint at the fact that most other Native women they know are survivors of sexual violence; it is a very prevalent issue that doesn’t get a lot of attention.”

— Sasha Maria Suarez

Luebke, who studies gender-based violence in Indigenous communities and the barriers to seeking help after experiences of violence created by structural violence, racism and patriarchy, is the only person in the state to ever publish data on its magnitude. 

“We have absolutely no idea,” Luebke says, regarding estimates of the crisis’ quantitative impacts. “We estimate, going by the one large national study that was done by the National Institute of Justice, that almost 85% [of Indigenous women] have experienced lifetime violence.”

Luebke’s research has been qualitative in nature thus far; she has interviewed countless urban Indigenous women to learn about their experiences, and she has plans to expand to reservation land in the coming year. Kaul says that the lack of quantitative data is one of the biggest challenges facing the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s missing and murdered Indigenous women task force.

“One [barrier to progress] is having data. The better that we have a comprehensive understanding of the issue, the more that data can be presented to policymakers so that they can take action based on the data available,” Kaul says.

One of the reasons that quantitative data collection is difficult, Suarez says, is in part because state institutions struggle to classify Indigenous women when reports are made. Resulting from the decades-long boarding school and adoption crises, as well as the Indian Relocation Act and other federal policies, about 70% of all Native Americans in the country live off-reservation in urban areas, according to Luebke. 

This presents challenges because of the combination of reservation-based recordkeeping that cannot account for urban relatives’ experiences and urban police departments that can’t keep track of the transitory Indigenous population, Suarez says. When someone goes missing from reservation land, not only is the network of the community and tribal officers able to organize search efforts, but there is less confusion in the reporting.

“But one of the problems with the data is it doesn’t specifically identify cases as [missing and murdered Indigenous women] cases,” Kaul says about this reporting flaw. “Knowing what’s happening and, for example, where the issue may be more severe or where there may be less of an issue can help us figure out how best to respond.”

Survivors and the families of missing women also fear that their reports will be received with passivity and nonchalance. Police departments have a history of “really downplaying the fact that they’re missing and their families are looking for them, and so that often leads to distrust,” Suarez says. 

Native peoples’ distrust in American authorities is rooted in the belief that the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis isn’t a priority. This distrust seems to be validated through the missing white woman syndrome, dismissal of reports and also through the extractive industry.

Indigenous communities have been defending their land and fighting for sovereignty since 1492, and in 2021 pipelines and mining ventures threaten not only Indigenous people’s sacred land, but also their women. Suarez explains that these extractive missions are sometimes referred to by the media as “open hunting on Indigenous women” because of the way that non-Native men come to reservation land and kidnap and traffic women. 

A study from the National Institute of Justice found that 97% of Native women who have survived violence experienced that violence from a non-Native perpetrator. Kaul attributes this increase in violence during extractive missions to themes of all missing and murdered persons cases. He explains that human trafficking increases when there is an influx of people from “out of town” in a community, so with these camps on Indigenous land he expects similar outcomes.

Monette, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Nation, cautions against this narrative though, saying non-Native folks have tried to tell the story of this crisis, but the focus on jurisdictional disputes portrays “lawlessness” at these extractive sites.

He notes a correlation between high-profile coverage of the crisis on extractive sites and “a rash of missing Indigenous women” from these areas.

Instead of focusing on jurisdiction, Monette suggests that advocates pay closer attention to the continuation of the colonialism that started the problem. An aversion to guilt and avoidance of accountability have led to a nation in denial of the darkness of its treatment of Indigenous communities, Monette says. 

To deconstruct the barriers Americans have in place that prevent progress, Monette says citizens must reckon with the fact that “raping and plundering and pillaging was part of the charge of the day. This is how you colonize people, at least in some definitions of colonialism. This is how you exploit them. This is how you rend their societies asunder, and that’s what [Europeans] did, and it was rewarded. It wasn’t condemned. It wasn’t called un-Christian. It was rewarded.” 

Monette’s goals necessitate a societal transformation that he believes requires extensive policy changes.  

“Seeing all of the other tribes and Indigenous peoples who have been standing up and making these issues known is part of that, too — part of our reservation and the people there finding their resilience.”

— Cherie Thunder

In the meantime, Indigenous advocates and community leaders like Suarez, Luebke and Thunder, a community organizer and Menominee woman, feel cautiously optimistic about the steps being taken in Wisconsin. Thunder was a part of the early lobbying efforts for the missing and murdered Indigenous women task force. 

While some may see the Department of Justice as the colonizer, Luebke says the task force is truly Indigenous-led and that the department leaders have always emphasized the importance of that. 

Indigenous leaders and activists have been fighting for missing and murdered women and girls since the beginning of the colonial project. Thunder attributes this centuries-long resilience to the support networks and trust within Native communities.

“Seeing all of the other tribes and Indigenous peoples who have been standing up and making these issues known is part of that, too — part of our reservation and the people there finding their resilience,” Thunder says.

Editor’s Note: This story was edited on Dec. 15 to include Jeneile Leubke’s tribal affilition.