Lack of awareness, data hinders cases of missing and murdered Native American women, study finds

A new report documents more than 2,300 missing Native American women and girls in the U.S., underscoring the reasons behind the lack of awareness and scrutiny in these cases.
Annita Lucchesi, director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, speaks at a rally for slain Indigenous woman Jessica Alva alongside Alva's mother, Cindy Martin-Wolfe, in San Francisco in 2019.
Annita Lucchesi, director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, speaks at a rally for slain Indigenous woman Jessica Alva alongside Alva's mother, Cindy Martin-Wolfe, in San Francisco in 2019.Sovereign Bodies Institute
By Erik Ortiz

Tammy Carpenter was in tears as she drove through a rural stretch of Northern California two years ago to Shasta County, near where her adult daughter, Angela McConnell, was found shot to death with her boyfriend in an encampment favored by transients. She still remembers the way a sheriff's detective, who was not Native American, like herself, handled the delicate conversation.

Carpenter said that his line of questioning insinuated that her daughter had come from a broken home where no one had jobs and all were involved with drugs.

"I'm a very vocal person, and I gave it to that detective," Carpenter, 51, said this week. "All my sisters and I graduated from college. We worked. We all loved Angela. With society today, people look and think: 'It's another dead Indian girl. Probably a drug addict. Homeless. Who cares?' That got me very upset."

Tammy Carpenter, center, with her son, Richie Carpenter, and daughter, Angela McConnell, in 2017.Courtesy Tammy Carpenter

The mysterious circumstances surrounding McConnell's killing is one of hundreds of cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls across the United States that never garnered national headlines or social media attention or demands for justice from powerful people. The absence of awareness or widespread scrutiny in these cases is the focus of a report released Thursday that documented 2,306 missing Native American women and girls in the U.S., about 1,800 of whom were killed or vanished within the past 40 years.

Nearly 60 percent of the cases are homicides and 31 percent involve girls 18 and younger, according to data analyzed by the Sovereign Bodies Institute, a nonprofit, Indigenous-led research organization that began counting and mapping such missing and murdered cases over the past few years. In addition, nearly three-quarters of the cases had victims who were living within the foster care system when they went missing. The vast majority of cases in the U.S., as well as another 2,000 in Canada, remain unsolved, according to the research.

The perceived lack of sensitivity from law enforcement when Carpenter's daughter was found dead isn't unique. In the Sovereign Bodies Institute report, families described insufficient cultural awareness from law enforcement, as well as "poor or nonexistent communication with families and survivors, chronic lack of cases being brought to justice and ... past and ongoing violence perpetrated by officers."

Advocates have long complained about the lack of comprehensive state and federal data on missing and murdered Native Americans, which is often linked to incidents of sexual violence and human trafficking, and they believe poor record-keeping, racial misclassification and adverse relationships between tribal governments and outside law enforcement have led to an underreporting of cases.

The institute's report focuses on the corridor between Northern California and the border with Oregon, which can be largely isolated and requires law enforcement to cover large areas with fewer resources compared to bigger city departments.

Researchers said they examined 105 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls from the region and found that 62 percent of cases were never included in any official missing persons database; 74 percent of cases have no public documentation related to manner of death, whether charges were filed or a suspect or person of interest was found; and 56 percent of cases don't mention or make public the victim's tribal affiliation. However, tracking tribal affiliation has begun to change recently, with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a national clearinghouse that falls under the Justice Department, making such information available as of June.

The Justice Department last fall announced a federal initiative known as Operation Lady Justice, which was formed to help combat violence and human trafficking involving tribes.

A 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice estimates that 1.5 million American Indian and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence, including sexual abuse, and the Justice Department found that women on some reservations have been killed at a rate more than 10 times the national average.

On Monday, Ivanka Trump and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt touted the opening in suburban Minneapolis of the first federal task force office dedicated to solving cases of missing and murdered Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, including men. Six more offices will be opened next month throughout the country, although none in California.

"Indian Country enriches the fabric of our great nation on every level ... yet a dark pattern is plaguing tribal communities across the country," Trump, a senior White House adviser and the president's daughter, said at the Minnesota office opening.

Annita Lucchesi, a Cheyenne descendant who started the Sovereign Bodies Institute, said becoming invested in the issue has to go beyond opening an office and also requires the difficult work of meeting with families and understanding the systemic racial and economic disparities that foster cycles of violence, poverty and crime.

"Cold case reviews are really important, but the issue is so complex and goes much deeper that we need a holistic team that can figure out not only why this is happening, but how can we stop it from happening to others," Lucchesi said.

The Sovereign Bodies Institute collaborated with the Yurok Tribal Court, which is part of the Yurok Tribe in Northern California, to compile and analyze the latest data focusing on the region.

Abby Abinanti, the chief judge of the Yurok Tribe and the first Native American woman to be admitted to the California State Bar, said attitudes toward Indigenous women today can also be traced historically to the stealing of Indigenous children to work as indentured servants for white settlers through the Civil War and the sending of thousands of Native American children to boarding schools for federal assimilation programs in the late 19th century, in effect severing cultural connections and damaging familial relationships through the generations.

"That has a trickle-down effect, as they say," Abinanti said. "We have been invisible as Native people for a very long time."

Abinanti said that while it's important for tribal, local and state jurisdictions to find common ground in order to solve cases today, a lot of mostly rural communities are struggling to respond with adequate resources, and many don't have the staff with the cultural competency in working with Indigenous communities.

Sgt. Kyle Wallace of the Shasta County Sheriff's Office said every homicide comes with its own set of challenges, whether or not the victim is Native American or lives on or off a reservation, and rural departments in particular face geographic barriers and crime scenes that "don't fit into a single box."

McConnell, 26, a Hoopa Valley Tribe member of Mohave, Yurok and Karuk descent, had been camping in a wooded area of Shasta Lake, about an hour from the Oregon border, with her partner, Michael Bingham Jr., 31. Carpenter said she wants to raise money for a billboard to bring renewed attention to the case, and hopes a reward — now at $30,000 — will help crack it.

Carpenter said her daughter, who had planned to study nursing in the fall and loved writing poetry, was "in the wrong place at the wrong time." Shasta County officials did not comment on details about the case, although Wallace said the investigation remains open and "we're still following up on leads."

It's not just adults who are traumatized and seeking answers, either. Sumi Gail Juan, a Hoopa Valley Tribe member, has been missing since 2010, when she was 33.

Her 16-year-old daughter has tried to piece together what happened to her mother, who had been battling drug addiction and suffered from seizures. She said she knows the people her mother had been socializing with, and believes someone can say definitively whether she's still alive or not. She'd like the police to keep on the case.

"Cases like my mom's might be put on the back burner," said Juan's daughter, who has struggled with her own drug use and asked that her name not be used.

The teen has pingponged between family members and now lives in Washington state, a place she believes will help her to stay clean. There, she has a passion fruit tree she waters in memory of her mother.

"People don't pay attention to Native women because maybe they think it's their fault what happened to them," the teen said. "But I can't give up on my mom."