Photo by Cody Hammer
The Gabby Petito case has brought up a storm of emotions for Indigenous women. Many of us feel the conflict within ourselves as we truly empathize with the Petito family. However, the conflict within comes not because of what happened to their daughter, but because missing and murdered Indigenous people NEVER receive this sort of response from either law enforcement or the media.
Homicide is the third-leading cause of death among Indigenous women, and they are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average, according to federal data. Also, more than four out of five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than one in two have experienced sexual violence, according to the Indian Law Resource Center.
We love our children, sisters, and mothers just as much as the blonde, blue-eyed Petito family. They received nationwide assistance in finding their loved one. We mourn just as hard individually and as a community when a loved one is taken from us in this manner. We cry for justice just as loud as our non-melanated counterparts. Why then do our pleas for help and our cries for justice fall on deaf ears?
NOISE, a nonprofit organization that stands for Northeastern Oklahoma Indigenous Safety & Education, has been involved in cases in which missing Indigenous women were listed as runaways instead of missing, in which law enforcement has refused to take a report at all. We are often a family’s last hope. NOISE is a grassroots organization of volunteers who assist families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives. In addition to bringing awareness, NOISE works with families to meet other needs that will support their desire to find their missing loved one or bring justice to a relative that has been lost.
In Indian Country, we know we can’t rely on prosecutors, judges or law enforcement. We rely on a small team of Aunties who pitch in for gas, share rides and get donations from community members for printing flyers. These volunteers put on their boots and go out and search. We rely on these same women to show up for court with families (pre-Covid) on the rare occasion that anyone has been charged with murder or kidnapping. We search, we march, we protest, we lobby, we argue with law enforcement and prosecutors, we learn laws without a degree in law or criminal justice, and we learn jurisdictional boundaries out of necessity. Most learn how to get people to safety without the benefit of formal training or certifications.
We do this because we understand that Indigenous people are invisible to everyone else and because we understand that on a deeper level, we are all connected. We understand that we are all relatives and that it is our responsibility to love and care for our relatives. While we press for media coverage, we know that it is rare that we will receive it, so we do the best we can and carry on to bring our loved ones home without resources or assistance.
Our grassroots MMIR Advocates, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, are truly the heroes of our people. They do the work that most cannot emotionally deal with. They bring respect and care to families that are never provided by official sources in white society. We know our traditions and our role as matriarchs in our community. The load can be heavy but Indigenous women are used to that. So no, it is not that we do not feel for the young woman that was murdered. We feel deeply for her and her family. We just scream and cry for a world where people care about life regardless of skin color, hair color, addiction status, gender, or sexual orientation.
Oklahoma organizations include Matriarch, The Auntie Project, NOISE, and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has formed the first Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.
For more information on how you can help with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives movement, view these organizations and resources at https://www.indian-affairs.org/resources--organizations-involved.html