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MMIW: Red Symbolizes a Call for Attention

It has been said that red is a color that transcends the physical world and calls to the ancestors in the spirit world. For ceremony and pow-wow, Native Americans dressed their children in red as an introduction to the ancestors – calling upon them as guardians to the young. However, the color red had other uses and symbolic meanings that differ among Indigenous tribes in North America. It has been used by the young warrior painting his face and his horse, it has also been used to beautify the faces of young women and their clothing. Today, the role of red is being used to call attention to the invisible – missing and murdered.

Wearing Red on May 5

May 5 has been commemorated as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Across the nation, we are called upon to wear red to acknowledge thousands of young women and girls who go missing each year without so much as a search party. Topping a long list of reasons why law enforcement officials are unable to respond in a timely manner are being underfunded, short-staffed, and jurisdictional issues between Native and non-Native judicial systems.

A Crack in the Landscape of Justice

Native Americans know that there is a crack in the landscape of justice. The underlying issue of not having jurisdictional authority over non-Natives living on Native-owned land sends a powerful message of being untouchable. It’s a flaw in the judicial system that appears to be rigged against Native women and in favor of non-Native men – a gaping loophole that has allowed thousands of missing and murdered women and girls to be ignored.

According to the National Crime Information Center, 5,712 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing in 2016 alone, but only 116 of those cases were logged with the Department of Justice. According to the National Institute of Justice, 84 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetimes, and 56 percent experience sexual violence. Of those victims who experienced sexual violence – an astounding 97 percent were victimized by non-Native perpetrators.

The fact that Native women are being murdered at a rate ten times higher than other ethnicities and a majority of these murders and violent acts are committed by non-Native people on Native-owned land makes the injustice that much more frustrating. These higher rates of violence against Native American women are in no small part due to federal law limiting tribal court’s jurisdiction to criminally prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes on tribal lands.

Savanna’s Act

S.227 - Savanna's Act: Became Public Law No: 116-165 on Oct. 10, 2020. This bill directs the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review, revise, and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing or murdered Native Americans.

In short, the bill requires DOJ to:

  • provide training and technical assistance to tribes and law enforcement agencies;
  • develop and implement the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System;
  • conduct outreach to tribes, tribal organizations, and urban Indian organizations;
  • develop guidelines for response to missing and murdered case;
  • report statistics on missing or murdered Native Americans.

Not Invisible Act

S.982 - Not Invisible Act of 2019: Became Public Law No: 116-166 on Oct. 10, 2020. This bill increases the coordination of efforts to reduce violent crime within Indian lands and against Indians.

Specifically, the DOI must designate an official within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to coordinate prevention efforts, grants, and programs related to missing Indians and the murder and human trafficking of Indians.
In addition, the DOJ must (1) establish a joint commission on violent crime within Indian lands and against Indians, and (2) submit a written response to the recommendations developed by the joint commission.
The joint commission must develop and make publicly available recommendations to the Interior and DOJ on actions to combat violent crime against Indians and within Indian lands, identify, report, and respond to instances of missing persons, murder, and human trafficking.

New MMIW Unit

Read more about the new Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services (BIA-OJS) in the Call For Justice Is Answered By New MMIW Unit, a measure taken by Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland to form the unit. She noted that far too often murders and missing cases involving Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit go unsolved and unaddressed.

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Two-Spirit refers to a gender role, not a sexual orientation, specific to Native American and Alaska Native peoples.