Seeing Red: How this Crisis Began and Why it Persists Today

To understand the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR), we need to understand ‘how’ and ‘why’ Indigenous Peoples are uniquely impacted by violence at disproportionate rates.

How This Crisis Began

The disproportionate levels of violence that Native people face today can be traced back 500 years to the beginning of European colonization. While acts of violence, such as war, did occur before European contact, the levels of violence colonization brought to the land and to the bodies of Indigenous people were unparalleled to anything experienced before. This is directly due to the colonial aim to deliberately destroy Indigenous society and the justice structures they perceived as a threat to the success of colonization.

Colonization bred new violence, and furthered the extent of that violence by preventing us from protecting our people through community stability, tribal justice systems, and traditional support systems. The US government achieved this through the direct violence of genocide, forced assimilation policies, land seizure, boarding schools, and the denial or treaty rights.

The European invasion on Native land systematically dismantled tribal nations’ ability to enact justice and protect their people and lands. Beyond the disruption of our ability to support each other, we were also torn from our spiritual healing and protection due to religious persecution as well as the epistemicide (the killing, silencing, annihilation, or devaluing of a knowledge system) of our languages and traditional practices.

Many tribal communities through US policies like the Reorganization Act were forced to adopt societal structures which opened for violence. These changes in our government structures challenged our ability to uphold traditional understandings of respect and gender relations, resulting in the proliferation of gender based violence. In this process Indigenous women, children, and LGBTQ+ 2S relatives were disproportionately targeted in acts of colonial violence. Bodies that were once treated as sacred now became policed, violated, and exploited under colonial rule. As with the land and the water, our people became extractable, exploitable, and commodifiable in the eyes of colonizers.

This violence was further fueled by the over sexualization of Indigenous people. These misrepresentations helped justify exploitation under colonial oppression by condemning Natives as exotic, over-sexed, and morally corrupt, in colonial media beginning as early as the first known depictions of our people in the fifteenth century. This primed interpretations that Native behaviors and bodies were inherent threats to civilized society and that these aspects of Native people needed to be controlled. Through this sexualized view, the objectification of Native people was publicly accepted and helped perpetuate stereotypes that justified violent oppression.

Why This Crisis Persists Today

Today Native communities still face high rates of violence in the form of assault, abduction, and murder due to the lasting effects of historic genocide and systemic inequity. This oppressive history is built through U.S. colonial policies and legislation such as removal, extermination, forced migration, and the systematic removal of Native children into Indian boarding schools and foster care. Since these violences began hundreds of years ago, they have had lasting effects which make Native communities disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Poverty, homelessness, limited access to education, limited access to health care, and forced placement into foster care are just some of the resulting vulnerabilities that Indigenous communities face today.

In addition to these vulnerability factors, there are unique barriers that affect Indigenous communities trying to access justice through criminal persecution, education about prevention, and survivor services. Justice against violence and the prevention of harm requires coordinated responses from multiple systems such as law enforcement, health care workers, courts, survivor service providers, teachers, child welfare workers, and local governments. Yet for Indigenous people, engagement within these systems has a different set of expectations and rules when compared to the general US population due to the same history of colonial systems as mentioned before.

For example, Indigenous people that are enrolled in a federally recognized tribe or who live on reservations can find themselves navigating completely separate systems of health care, family courts, foster care, and law enforcement agencies due to the complex intersections of Tribal Sovereignty and Federal Jurisdiction. This often results in law enforcement searches for missing Indigenous persons being halted due to jurisdictional boundaries, or in survivor services being unable to provide culturally competent spaces where Indigenous victims feel safe enough to receive care.

The magnitude and urgency of this crisis is both seen through the countless data points that prove the extent of the issue and felt through the absence of our loved ones across Indian Country. Fighting this crisis is not just about demanding change in the many systems that fail our people, but is also about honoring those who are not with us today by keeping their stories and blessings alive in our communities. While things like system-wide failures in law enforcement reporting and mainstream media make this crisis invisible, our people will continue to bring light to the ones that are missing and demand justice on their behalf.

The advocacy and action you will see in this exhibit are part of the MMIR movement to combat the crisis and end violence against our people. To learn more about the crisis or how you can help end it please visit our advocacy page.

If you or anyone you know is facing violence, please click here for more resources.