by Anna V. Bayona-Strauss
This article is part of The Death Gap Series, a collaboration between The Order Of The Good Death and The Collective For Radical Death Studies. The series examines the various ways in which systemic racism impacts the way BIPOC communities experience death and access end-of-life care.
(CW: suicide, sexual assault, descriptions of graphic violence)
On July 3, 2017, in the Arizona portion of Diné Tribal Nation, the lands of a tribe often referred to by the exonym “Navajo,” the day was permeated by blinding sunshine and dry desert heat. Ariel Begay, a bright, witty 26-year-old Diné woman, was picked up from her family home by her boyfriend, ready to enjoy the golden days of summer; but her plans did not only extend to the simple joys of the season—Ariel had recently graduated from a medical assistant program, with the promising goal of becoming a nurse in the near future.
The next afternoon was equally ordinary, when Ariel called her mother, Jacqueline, to inform her that she would try to make it home for dinner; when she didn’t, Ariel let her family know, ending the text with her usual affectionate, humorous moniker for her loved ones—“You jerks.”
The next day, she called her cousins to notify them that she was in a town just outside the reservation with friends. Later in the day, she didn’t call her sister Valya to speak to her three-year-old nephew—which was highly unusual for her, but not enough to immediately cause alarm.
However, throughout the next few days, Ariel made no contact with family or friends, and all their texts and voicemails to her received no response.
The young woman was typically active on social media, and the absence of her lively and quick-witted personality left a deeply concerning void both online and in person.
By the fifth day, Valya began making missing person posters featuring her sister, but was held back by a feeling that she was overreacting. “She’s going to come home,” Valya remembers thinking, “When Ariel comes home, she’s going to say, ‘Why did you do this? You’re silly.”
By nightfall, Ariel’s disappearance became undeniable, and the family descended into full-blown panic. Valya put up her posters, and Jacqueline, frantic, called the police.
The Diné Tribal Nation is the largest reservation in the United States. Spanning 27,000 square miles, including pieces of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, and home to around 170,000 Diné citizens, the reservation has its own tribal police force. As is unfortunately the case for tribal police forces across the country the Diné police force is underfunded, understaffed, and underresourced, stretched to the breaking point. The family, for better or for worse, had to turn to the FBI.
For all the powers and assets at the FBI’s disposal, it would take several months before Ariel’s remains were found beneath a bridge in Arizona. The FBI, for reasons vaguely disclosed as having to do with the investigation, withheld Ariel’s body from her family for nearly a year. Over this painful span of time, Jacqueline began the family’s practice of leaving flowers on the bridge just over the place where her daughter’s body had lain, broken and burned.
By the time Ariel’s remains were returned to her family, Jacqueline, her mother, was already dead.
As Valya recounts, Jacqueline was deeply affected by her daughter’s brutal death. She had suffered from an illness which had dramatically worsened as a result of her daughter’s tragic fate.
To date, the remaining family have received no legitimate information as to what happened to Ariel. The closest they have to any explanation, with no certainty as to their veracity, are the stories spiraling throughout the reservation’s community. “Rumors are that she was thrown off [the bridge],” Valya said to Al Jazeera, visibly struggling to keep her emotions in check, “And that the people responsible went back down there and cut her in half… They burned her lower part of the body, and they left the upper torso.”
As for those conducting the official investigation, Valya’s questions were met with a firm suggestion from officers that Ariel had, in fact, taken her own life. Valya’s response was shock. “That’s not possible,” she asserts with fierce certainty, “My sister had no reason to kill herself. She was excited for my pregnancy and to meet the baby… She had a lot of stuff to live for.”
Speaking of her sister’s life, and the light she brought to all those around her, Valya recalls that, “She loved taking selfies with my grandpa. She’s the only one who can get him to take a selfie,” finishing with the assertion that her beloved sister “was a beautiful person, and she cared, and loved everyone… She wanted the best for everybody.”
As for any explanations from the federal government, there is only a keenly evident absence. “The FBI victim advocate, she just tells me that there isn’t much evidence to go to her case,” explains Valya.
Sadly, this is a typical response from the administration—in these cases, according to Al-Jazeera, “A lack of evidence is the main reason federal officials give for declining to prosecute crimes on reservations.”
Ariel’s case is just one example of the many indigenous women who have been lost to an epidemic of violence and brutality ravaging both the United States and Canada. Widely known by indigenous activists and communities as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), or Stolen Sisters, the plague of violence continues to not only needlessly rob families of their loved ones—valued members of cultures who have suffered, and continue to suffer, under colonization and oppression, in its myriad, horrific forms—but also these women and girls’ fultures, their potential, their precious lives, cut cruelly short.
The history of indigenous peoples under the domination of the United States and Canada is one as unspeakably monstrous as it is largely unspoken. The mainstream narratives of both countries ignores several critical facts: namely, that both of these settler colonial states are built upon stolen land, resulting in generations of immeasurable suffering, broken treaties, cultural destruction, enslavement, and genocide.
Settler colonialism is generally defined as “a form of colonialism that seeks to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers. As with all forms of colonialism, it is based on exogenous domination, typically organized or supported by an imperial authority. Settler colonialism is enacted by a variety of means ranging from violent depopulation of the previous inhabitants to more subtle, legal means such as assimilation or recognition of indigenous identity within a colonial framework.” These aforementioned North American nations are two of the most significant examples of this form of imperialism, which continues to enact itself in manners both insidious and conspicuous.
The colonization of the Americas began with wars of conquest and systematic exploitation of not only natural resources, but the native peoples of the so-called “New World.” They were the first populations to be enslaved by the colonizing European nations, dehumanized and considered chattel, creating the model for the Atlantic Slave Trade which would continue to classify similarly dehumanized African peoples solely as property for centuries. The Great Dying, one of the most monumental genocides in human history, is widely erased in Western historical narratives; this genocide, caused by a combination of merciless warfare, famine, slavery, and newly—sometimes intentionally—introduced European diseases, extinguished around 90% of the indigenous population of the Americas.
From the Great Dying to American ‘Manifest Destiny,’ from the subsequent ‘Indian Wars’ to Canada’s Indian residential school system, and other atrocities ranging from forced sterilization to assimilation, the two Western colonial nations are founded upon legacies of cultural, natural, and human destruction. These are the roots from which forms of discrimination and violence against indigenous peoples continue to emerge—including the disturbing issue of MMIW.
Due, in large part, to a lack of focus on this issue by the United States and Canadian governments, indigenous scholars and activists have shouldered the task of defining, analyzing, spreading awareness, and fighting against this epidemic. According to their painstaking and dedicated work, the problem of MMIW is one with three main pillars; these individuals’ disappear first, in their lives and deaths, second, in data collection and recording, and third, in the media.
The lack of visibility and protection of native women begins with the pervasive settler colonial attitudes which dominate societal narratives of both countries; including the complicated interactions between tribal and federal law enforcement, due to the supremacy of the countries’ government powers over tribal nations; and harmful stereotypes presented in mainstream media, on the rare occasions when these cases are covered.
Much of the data available on the MMIW crisis in the United States was compiled by Anitta Lucchesi—Doctoral Intern at the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) and Southern Cheyenne descendant—and Abigail Echo-Hawk—Director of the UIHI and enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma—in their 2018 report, “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls: A snapshot of data from 71 urban cities in U.S.,” and in the database created in conjunction. Says Lucchesi, “For too long, data has been about other people telling native people who we are… It’s time that we tell the world who we are, and the world [to] actually listen to us.”
Due to the profound lack of thorough pre-existing material, the women took on the formidable task of creating their own corpus of information—combing through and assembling the sparse and unorganized available data, and using cartography to visibly represent the correspondence of the statistics to a greater history of dispossession and brutality. The database, as of November 2018, has over 3,000 logged cases, but the vast majority of them only come from the previous six years. Due to the prevalence of underreporting, particularly when attempting to trace the issue back to the beginning of the 20th century, Lucchesi estimates the actual numbers are drastically higher—closer to around 25,000 over the past century, in the U.S. alone.
The 2018 report begins with a disturbing disclaimer: “Due to UIHI’s limited resources and the poor data collection by numerous cities, the 506 cases identified in this report are likely an undercount of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in urban areas.” The report demonstrates that, according to the CDC, murder is the third-leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaskan Native Women, with rates of violence on reservations showing a rate up to ten times higher. It also highlights the critical absence of examination of violence against indigenous women living in urban areas, made even more alarming by the fact that approximately 71% of indigenous people in the United States and Canada currently live off of tribal lands, in urban centers; with the U.S. census showing that over 50% of these individuals identify as female, queer, non-binary, or Two-Spirit. Further demonstrating the nature of this crisis, the National Crime Information Center details 5712 American Indian and Alaskan Native women and girls reported missing in 2016 alone, with only 116 of these cases logged with the Department of Justice.
In the arduous and crucial work of creating this report, several specific obstacles have impeded the efforts of the UIHI.
First, the UIHI faced problems with data collection, intrinsically linked to the systemic racism and sexism—ultimately rooted in settler colonialism—which causes the deaths themselves. These barriers included, but were not limited to, agencies refusing to release data, failing to search data, ignoring requests from the UIHI, or charging a service fee for access to what information they had.
The report also highlighted long-standing complications with law enforcement institutions themselves. Sarah Deer, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, lawyer, and Professor at the University of Kansas, explains the historical origins of these adverse regulations, “In the late 19th century, the federal government imposed itself on tribal nations, and said, basically, ‘we don’t trust you to police yourselves’, and passed laws that allowed them to come into Indian Country and do crime control… It wasn’t a request of the tribal nations. And yet that’s still the law today.”
As previously mentioned, tribal police departments are stretched to the breaking point, without the funds, resources, or staff to address the issues that plague their communities. But these are far from the only obstructions—as a result of these federal ordinances, tribal law enforcement has highly limited sentencing power, even over their own citizens. By design, violent crimes occurring on reservations, such as homicide, assault, and kidnapping, can only be thoroughly addressed by the federal government.
Officer Willis Martine, a police officer of the Diné (Navajo) Nation, explains “The way the system is set up… if federal doesn’t take it, for whatever reasons, then you still can’t prosecute in tribal court for it; the maximum they could be given is a year in prison and up to $5000 fine… like for the homicide charge, on the tribal level. That’s the maximum right there.” Only because of tribal nations’ inability to adequately prosecute and sentence for serious offenses, he continues, “You would rather go with the federal level.”
Not only are tribal police forces barred from effectively preventing crime in their own communities, but they have no jurisdiction over non-native offenders—for any crimes, with the sole exception of a recent change which allows for prosecution of domestic abuse.
Roxanne White, activist and member of the Yakama, Nez Perce, Nooksack, and Grovont tribes, points out the discrepancies in federal and off-reservation law enforcement’s responses to crimes against natives, as opposed to crimes committed by natives. According to the Bureau of Justice, indigenous peoples are incarcerated at a rate 38% higher than the national average, demonstrating that while the protection of indigenous communities and individuals is continually all but disregarded, the same cannot be said of their prosecution.
In their study, the UIHI also found outside reports of 153 cases not documented by law enforcement, begging the question as to how many officially undocumented cases they could not find. As the UIHI points out, “No agency can adequately respond to violence it does not track.” It continues by connecting this lack of adequate action or concern on the part of non-native law enforcement to the ingrained roots of settler colonialism, tenably asserting that “continued research on racial and gender bias in police forces regarding how MMIWG cases are handled needs to occur.” Perhaps most sobering of all is UIHI’s discovery that nearly a third of perpetrators in MMIW cases are, for whatever reason, never held accountable by law enforcement. Valya Cisco, sister of Ariel Begay, gives voice to this disgraceful lack of either justice or peace for women like her sister, and those that love them, “I want justice for my sister, but it just seems like this person is still out there, around other daughters, sisters, aunts, grandmas—he could do it again, like he thinks that no one can convict him of the crime.”
Perhaps the most visible factor of all is the problematic narratives propagated by the media, blatantly evident in the rare presentations of this epidemic. According to the UIHI report, over 95% of the cases they documented were not covered in national or international media. Another troubling component was the media’s disproportionate focus on the violence taking place on reservations; which, UIHI notes, “perpetuates perceptions of tribal lands as violence-ridden environments, and, ultimately, is representative of an institutional bias of media coverage on this issue.”
The media also approaches these cases by proliferating what the UIHI terms ‘violent language,’ which includes but is not limited to racial stereotyping, misgendering trans victims, and victim blaming. In their analysis of available articles, the UIHI found that nearly a third of all media outlets examined included such violent language in their reporting; and horrifically, 22 out of 46 of these outlets used violent language in 100% of their coverage of MMIW cases. Instead of the media coverage centering the voices of the indigenous populations affected to productively raise awareness, respectfully honor these losses, and galvanize allies into action, the vast majority of their reporting causes still more harm.
Numerous other hindrances faced the UIHI in their creation of this report. Speaking on the report she co-authored, Abigail Echo-Hawk cautions that “What we know is this is barely scratching the surface.”
When asked to explain the specific reason for the MMIW crisis, Anitta Lucchesi states, “The reality is, unfortunately, there is no one reason,” and elaborates, “The one unifying factor would be colonialism and ongoing colonial occupation. It teaches people, whether native or non-native, to undervalue native women, to see us as less than human, to see us as exotic and sexy, and easy to use and abuse.”
The UIHI’s essential report ends with the resounding closing statement: “The lack of good data and the resulting lack of understanding about the violence perpetrated against urban American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls is appalling and adds to the historical and ongoing trauma American Indian and Alaska Native people have experienced for generations. But the resilience of American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls has sustained our communities for generation after generation. As the life bearers of our communities, they have been integral to holding strong our culture and traditional practices. Bringing to light the stories of these women through data is an integral part of moving toward meaningful change that ends this epidemic of violence. UIHI is taking huge steps to decolonize data by reclaiming the Indigenous values of data collection, analysis, and research, for Indigenous people, by Indigenous people. Our lives depend on it.”
The high cost of reducing human beings, in all their complexity and innate value, to mere stereotypes, even objects, has been illustrated in countless horrors over the centuries, and to this day continues to devastate peoples marginalized by the dominant systems of power and those who, to varying degrees, participate in them. These statistics are appalling in their own right, but even more so when comprehending each number as an individual, inherently precious in all their flawed and magnificent singularity.
“As Native women, we give life to our people.We pass on the knowledge of our culture to the next generation. Our hearts beat with the blood of a thousand past and future generations… For every Native woman that goes missing or is murdered, our people lose our future. Future mothers and grandmothers, future artists, future teachers, future lawyers, future leaders,” states Native Hope in their video on MMIW, continuing to say that thorough education and increased awareness are the first steps toward preventing, resisting, and battling this deep-rooted, settler-colonialist crisis.
The little to no support received from law enforcement, the justice system, or any major government power results in the families and communities of the disappeared women undertaking the searching themselves. They often receive no closure, justice, or answers as to why their loved ones were taken from them; but they continue to fight the crisis. UIHI Director Abigail Echo-Hawk elucidates this resistance, “If you look in a history book, you’re going to see language that talks about us in the past, living in teepees or igloos, but nothing about the current incredible, strong, resilient people that we are today… Our resiliency has always been action, and in that action, we are not only sustaining our own communities, but we are part of building a better America.”
One thing which helps the surviving loved ones of lost MMIW individuals, is to remember them, to honor them, to tell their stories, to ensure who they were and what happened to them will not be disregarded, forgotten, or trivialized. It is of the utmost importance that allies do this as well, celebrating these individuals and their lives. Most importantly, we must take action to protect indigenous femmes and communities as a whole, to use our privilege and position to elevate their voices and sovereignty, and follow their examples to prevent this epidemic from continuing to claim precious lives.
Many falsely believe death to be the great equalizer, but it is also evidence of the many violent expressions of inequality. The oppression of indigenous cultures and marginalized bodies in life is mirrored by the brutalities and violations enacted upon them in death. Knowledge of these facts do not exist in a vacuum as merely a tragedy to be mourned. Instead, they must provide a foundation to motivate and catalyze action within larger movements seeking to ensure indigenous sovereignty and the rights of indigenous women, girls, two-spirits, NBs, queer folk, and peoples as a whole—their rights to a good life, according to their own specific cultural and spiritual principles and worldviews, and equally importantly, a good death.
- Urban Indian Health Institute Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Report
- Al Jazeera’s The Search: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women | Fault Lines
- Huffington Post’s Why Are Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women Cases Being Ignored? | Between The Lines
- National Congress of American Indians Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women Report
- The Outline’s Ariel, 26, Missing
- Sovereign Bodies Institute
- Lakota People’s Law Project MMIW Resource Guide
- National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
- It Starts With Us
- Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA
- Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women
- Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains
- Global Indigenous Council
Anna V. Bayona-Strauss studies Comparative Literature at Fordham University, and alongside literature, is very passionate about history, cultural studies, human rights issues, environmental issues, film/television, folklore, cosmologies, theology, and, naturally, death. She/they writes non-fiction and fiction, performs as an actor and singer, and can be found on Instagram @citizencinematrix, and Twitter @citzncinematrix.