I encountered Clare’s story while interning at a nonprofit organization in Montana doing research on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic. While I am not part of the Native community myself, this experience inspired the ideas I cover in this piece.-Renny Jiang
On the outskirts of the Flathead Reservation, in a hunting cabin in Bigfork, Montana, a Native woman peers out at the morning fog through a cabin window as she recounts the heartbreaking story of losing her niece, “Clare.” When Clare first went missing, her family called the police, as is common in most missing persons cases. From there, however, the case took a horrifying turn. The police refused to look for Clare, claiming that she was probably drunk and had run off. The family had to conduct their own search for her, walking dozens of miles in the heavy snow and desperately searching for her without any idea of what had happened or where she might be. Devastatingly, her family eventually found her body themselves.
Clare’s story matches a pattern often referred to as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) epidemic, and her death is a painful reminder of how the United States has continuously failed Indigenous women by leaving them with no place to go when they leave home. Since this country’s founding, the US government has systematically devalued Native lives. Even in recent decades, Native people have endured forced relocation to federally mandated reservations and forced assimilation to American cultural norms. With their communities and traditions stripped from them, Indigenous people are more likely to suffer from mental illness, including severe depression and substance abuse disorders. For Indigenous women, the situation is even more dire; increased rates of mental illness and addiction on reservations are accompanied by dangerously high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Unsurprisingly, the United States’ failure to address its abuse of Indigenous people has led to widespread distrust of government agencies and institutions within Indigenous communities. As a result, Native people often avoid seeking help from government institutions, including government-funded, non-Native shelters where their cultural needs are not addressed and where they’re often subject to high rates of violence by non-Natives. Exacerbating the situation, hundreds of thousands of Native women suffer from violence and homelessness, but there are only 55 existing tribal women’s shelters in the United States. To resolve this crisis, the state and federal governments in the United States, in conjunction with tribal authorities, must prioritize building and funding tribal women’s shelters on federally recognized reservations. The lives of Native women depend on it.
Of all the ethnic groups in the United States, Native women suffer from the highest rates of domestic violence and physical assault in the home. Indeed, a shocking 55.5 percent of Native American women have experienced violence and 15.9 percent have been raped by their intimate partners. Still, non-Natives are the most common perpetrators of trauma and abuse against Native women. A whopping 96 percent of Native women who experience sexual violence are assaulted by non-Native perpetrators and 89 percent of Indigenous women have been stalked by non-Natives.
For this reason, Native tribal shelters are particularly crucial in helping Indigenous women escape and recover from abusers. Not only do they offer physical protection for Native women wary of leaving their reservations, but they also offer cultural safety. Indigenous groups who reside on reservations have traditions, practices, and institutions that differ from those of non-Native American society. When Native women go to battered women’s shelters, they should also have access to their specific cultural traditions and people in their communities so that they do not feel isolated and misunderstood during their period of healing. A study conducted by the University of Calgary found that Indigenous people feel culturally safe in environments with seven key aspects: respect and trust, awareness and understanding of Native people, non-judgmental attitudes, access to Elders and other cultural support, equality of access to services and inclusion, and consistency of services and staff. The only way for the government to create a safe environment for Native women is to build shelters by and for Indigenous people that emphasize cultural sensitivity while adhering to these strict standards.
Because tribal shelters are the only spaces where Native women can enjoy both physical and cultural safety, state and federal governments should work closely with tribal governments and Native citizens to build tribal women’s shelters on reservations. Though the government should provide the funding for these shelters, it is imperative that Native people residing on the reservations oversee the construction, management, and security of the shelters themselves, as well as the implementation of other services, like transportation and childcare. Importantly, tribal governments should prioritize hiring Native women on their reservations to decide on the programs and amenities that the shelter would offer and to manage the day-to-day operations. Not only would this create employment opportunities for Native women, but it would also ensure that victims of domestic violence receive adequate care from individuals who understand their experiences.
Though this initiative might seem costly, state and federal governments are well-equipped with resources to fund it, and tribes must have access to these resources. The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) both set aside federal grants for victims, though these funds are not often easily accessible to Native tribes. Both state and federal governments should prioritize making these existing funds more accessible, so that the hundreds of thousands of dollars directed towards Native people are actually utilized to help Native communities.
For centuries, the federal government has legally and institutionally devalued Native women and left them vulnerable to violence and abuse in their own homes. Given this history, the US government has a social and moral obligation to provide funding and support to Native people. Tribes must now take initiative to use state and federal funding to create culturally, mentally, and physically safe spaces for the women of their community. Native women deserve to have a home to stay in—one that makes them feel comfortable and safe as they heal from their past trauma. Clare’s story might have ended differently if she had had a Native women’s shelter near her. Although Clare and her family would still have faced suffering, Clare might at least have been able to survive and, eventually, heal.