“What does missing and murdered mean to you?”
The question was posed at the beginning of Tuesday’s symposium at Fort Lewis College by head speaker Gina Lopez, a Ute Mountain Ute and member of Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Lopez is a member of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Taskforce of Colorado, made up of members of various tribes in the state.
The question Lopez asked is not rhetorical. She looks out into the crowd of mostly Indigenous audience members and asks them to engage with their own thoughts on the subject matter.
“Seeing us as the ‘Drunken Indian,’” said one audience member. “The way we’re viewed by police. That we’re drunks. Disregarded and not taken seriously.”
“Children who don’t have moms anymore,” said another audience member.
“Injustice,” said another attendee. “Failure to meet the basic needs of Indigenous peoples. Failure to see us.”
Lopez nodded in agreement.
“A failure to see us, see us as worthy of justice,” said Lopez, “See us as worthy of being seen, worthy of being heard, worthy of being safe.”
Failure of American law enforcement when it comes to protecting and serving Indigenous populations, especially women, has a long, dark history, and the MMIRT wants to bring that history into the light.
“This is a way in which we can lift up our voices in these experiences and a way that we can address this injustice,” Lopez said.
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior Indian Affairs, Native American and Alaska Native rates of murder, rape and violent crime are all higher than the national averages. The murder rate among Indigenous women living on reservations is also staggering in its numbers, as Lopez discussed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2016 that the murder rate is 10 times higher than the national average for women living on reservations, and the third leading cause of death for Native women.
Two of the main purposes of the newly implemented task force, expanded from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women organization, is to bring national awareness to the alarming violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and deaths that have been occurring over the last decades and even centuries to the Native peoples of North America. The second purpose is to keep track of the numbers and statistics that local and state law enforcement agencies are failing to do.
Lopez displayed a breakdown of missing or murdered Indigenous women in the top 10 cities across the country who are not registered in law enforcement records. Denver appears as one of the locations with a number 7 next to it, indicating there are seven Native American missing or murdered women not found in Denver law enforcement’s records.
Lopez also pointed out that even resource centers like NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), which keeps track of missing Indigenous people, has differing numbers from MMIW USA’s organization. NamUs has 780 missing American Indian and Alaska Natives, and MMIW has 691 as of 2019.
“They don’t even have numbers matching each other,” Lopez said. “Though these folks are gathering data, there is no centralized way in which folks are gathering this information.”
Lopez broke down the long, egregious history of acts and laws set against Indigenous peoples, and why a lack of urgency on the part of law enforcement when it comes to crimes being committed to Native peoples can be traced centuries back, especially with The Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, which pushed the Native peoples off their land and onto reservations, thousands dying in the process. The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 was then passed by President Harry S. Truman, which tried to lure them back off those reservations and into the cities in an effort to assimilate them into urban society. Lopez also pointed out that even though the government’s pretense was to help Indigenous people become a part of American society, they could not even vote in Colorado until 1970.
“That really wasn’t that long ago,” she said.
Lopez went even further back in history to the time of Christopher Columbus and the high rate of sexual violence against Native American women by the Spanish settlers. She points out that Columbus was not exempt from assaulting women himself.
Lopez also displayed a quote attributed to Columbus, revealing his involvement in trafficking Indigenous women, including children. Many of those in attendance gasped at the implication.
“There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from 9 to 10 are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.”
Lopez connected these incidents with modern day violence against Indigenous women and how little attitudes have change toward their welfare.
Recently, MMIW has expanded efforts to include men, nonbinary people and other members of the LGBTQ+ community, and is looking to address the need of tribal jurisdiction of violent crimes, as well as passing adequate laws that address violence against tribal members.
Lopez pointed out how small Indigenous populations are in North America, and highlighted the need to protect those populations.
“We are a very precious few,”she said. “When we lose our people, those losses are felt.”