Barron: Missing Indigenous Women


By Morgan Barron, Opinion Writer


Trigger warning: This article discusses sensitive topics, including acts of violence and rape made towards indigenous people.

On Feb. 7, 1967, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a small piece buried deep within the Tuesday paper titled, “Death Cause Exposure, Study Rules,” which reads, “An autopsy of the body of Mrs. Glenn (Myrtle Bear) Pete, 30, Monday determined she died of exposure… the autopsy Monday disclosed no broken bones, and death was due only to exposure. Abrasions on her knees and elbows apparently were due to attempts to crawl to her home, only 300 yards away.”

Exposure does not explain the details and circumstances of Pete’s death as reported in the Sunday edition of the Tribune, however. Myrtle Bear Pete had been missing since the Thursday evening prior to when her body was discovered that Saturday morning. The police never investigated where she had been during the time between Thursday and Saturday or if she was ever at her death site voluntarily. Pete appeared to have been beaten prior to death. Utah officers said that her body showed signs of a broken shoulder, a broken arm and possibly a broken neck. Pete may have died of exposure, but the physical injuries evident on her body likely rendered her incapable of making it 300 yards to her home and safety. The need for investigation seemed obvious to young Mary Allen, Pete’s niece, but the case appears to have ended with the announcement of the autopsy results. When Allen asked her mother why nothing further was done for her aunt, her mother said, “Because we’re native and we’re not a high priority.”

It is hard to estimate how many indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered since Myrtle Bear Pete’s death was ruled accidental. While missing person statistics are available for every other demographic, none currently exist for Native American women. It’s estimated that as many as 300 indigenous women go missing or die under suspicious circumstances each year in the United States and in Canada. Many of these native women are also suspected victims of largely uninvestigated sexual violence. This number is staggering but sadly unsurprising. Stories of violent aggressors taking women are disturbingly common in the native community.

The rape and abduction of native people is a hallmark of European exploration and colonization in America, beginning with Christopher Columbus’ personal involvement with the sex trafficking of young native girls. While colonization is often referred to in the United States as a historical event, it persists in our country’s culture through broken treaties with tribal nations and our government’s national indifference to difficulties faced by indigenous people. Why native women are disproportionately missing and murdered is a direct consequence of modern forms of colonization in our country, as it allows kidnappers, rapists and murders who target indigenous populations to walk free.

Marginalized, indigenous people struggle for visibility and justice within our society. The media does not commonly run stories of individual missing native women. These cases are not tracked by the FBI. Tribal police lack the number of officers needed to conduct searches for missing women and lack the training required to conduct thorough investigations on behalf of these women. Engaging federal agencies can hinder an investigation even further as investigative jurisdiction is often unclear in these cases; crimes that occur on reservations can fall under tribal, federal or state jurisdiction depending on whether the perpetrator is native or not. Racist investigators also plague investigations. Many natives share the opinion of Ivan MacDonald, a member of the Blackfeet Nation: “The federal government doesn’t really give a crap [about our people] at the end of the day.” These key vulnerabilities attract predators and few ever face criminal consequences for their actions.

It has been over 50 years since Myrtle Bear Pete died at the edge of a road, a shouting distance from her home. At the time of her death, Pete had a 14-month-old daughter. As little has been done to address the United States’ crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women in the past five decades, all native daughters have been at risk and many have been victims: Monica Still Smoking in 1979, Christine Lester in 1987, Amanda Cook in 1996, Jeanette Chief in 2009, Qyana Smith in 2018 and thousands of others. Their deaths are more than a symptom of colonization, but a silent testament to our country’s failure to adequately protect and provide justice to America’s most vulnerable populations.

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