Indigenous Communities Work To Find Justice Among Epidemic Of Violence

May 4, 2021

The U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) finds Indigenous women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average.

For more than a decade, Uniting Three Fires Against Violence has been supporting the 12 federally-recognized tribal governments in Michigan as they respond to violence against their communities.

Their work ranges from training tribal law enforcement on how to interact with victims to lobbying for laws to protect Indigenous people. Rachel Carr is the organization's Executive Director.

She believes tribal nations should have the power to try their own cases.

“If there's a problem in our tribal communities, they deserve tribal resolution. We have to rely on the federal government to come in and provide safety and justice for members in our community," she said.

Up until 2013, tribes had no ability to prosecute non-natives for domestic and dating violence. That year, they received limited power to do so through a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). But, that measure did not allow tribes to prosecute crimes related to child abuse, sex trafficking, rape or murder.

Jeff Davis is a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan. He said justice can never really be granted for Indigenous victims because of those limitations.

“The problem with this is the whole jurisdictional mess. And the sad fact is, when it happens in Indian Country, most of the time, the tribe's jurisdiction is limited," he said.

That power is in the process of being expanded though. On March 17, the House voted to approve another reauthorization of the VAWA with bipartisan support. Carr said this reauthorization would expand the power of Native Americans to prosecute non-natives for violent crimes that were previously left out.

If the act gains approval from the Senate, it would end impunity for non-native perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse, stalking, sex trafficking and assaults on tribal land.

An Epidemic Of Violence Against Indigenous Women

Melissa Pamp knew there was an epidemic of violence against Native women, but she never thought it would hit so close to home.

“I just never thought that it would be my daughter. And statistically, it would have happened to one of my daughters," she said. 

Pamp’s voice is heavy with grief as she remembers her twenty-one year old daughter, Nangonhs-Ba Massey.

“So I don't know if maybe, somehow she knew, and she sacrificed for her sisters. I don't know. But it has to stop," Pamp said.

A citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Massey was killed in November of 2020.

A non-native woman stabbed her at an apartment complex in the city of Mount Pleasant, on the Isabella Indian Reservation.

The suspect, Kaden Gilbert, has been arraigned in federal court on charges of first-degree murder. She could face the death penalty if found guilty.

“I don't really know what justice looks like, because you can't bring that person back. You know, I mean, stuff happened that night that has changed lives forever.” 

How Michigan Indigenous Communities Find Their Own Solutions to Violence

Bryan Newland is the elected Tribal Chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community. He said he’s hopeful cases of violence against Indigenous women will be easier to prosecute thanks to a new pilot project he’s launched in the state through the DOJ.

It’s a collaboration with the 12 federally-recognized tribes of Michigan to improve investigations of missing Indigenous people and develop protocols for how state and tribal law enforcement work together.

“Having the U.S. Department of Justice step in and do so quickly with protocols in place will allow us to respond more quickly and potentially save someone's life,” Newland said. “And so, this type of coordination is crucial to protecting people in Indian Country.”

The DOJ also establised a research task force in 2008 to address how Indigenous commmunities are being affected by violence. But today, there is still no nationawide database of missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

Andrea Riley Mukavetz is a citizen of the Chippewa of Thames First Nation and a Grand Valley State University professor. Her research focuses on American Indian women. She said this failure in accountability from the DOJ can be traced to how the federal government has erased Indigenous people and their cultures.

"The whole goal of the settler colonial state is to eradicate Indigenous people from it. That has been the goal from the very beginning,” she said. “Every single time murder and violence happen in our communities we carry that trauma with us. And every single time this happens, it impacts the next generation and it impacts the current generation." 

Ending that impact of violence is exactly what United States Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, hopes to change.

Haaland is the first Native American woman to serve in a Presidential cabinet as secretary.

In April 4, Haaland announced the creation of the Missing and Murdered Unit housed in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

In a press release, Haaland said the unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritze the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people and help provide closure for those families. 

The story is possible through a partnership with the The Mishigamiing Journalism Project and The Traverse City Record-Eagle. The Mishigamiing Journalist Project provides support for Indigenous people to report, consult and train in newsroom across Michigan. To support the project click here.