Expert Commentary

Research raises new questions about missing and murdered Indigenous women

The bodies of Native American women, when found, are most likely to be categorized as unidentified in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a study finds.

Missing murdered Indigenous women MMIW research
(Flickr/Heather D) Empty red dresses hang to honor and raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women.

An analysis published recently in the Criminal Justice Policy Review offers new insights and raises new questions about the national public health crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S. — and the news media’s role in helping authorities solve these cases.

When found deceased, Native American women’s bodies are 135% more likely to be unidentified than the bodies of women of other racial or ethnic groups in the U.S., according to the analysis, which examines cases reported to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System from 2009 to 2018.

Researchers also find that women, regardless of their race or ethnicity, are much more likely to be found dead and unidentified in urban areas than in rural ones.

Nikolay Anguelov, one of the authors of the paper, says the findings underscore the need to correct the myth that Indigenous women tend to live in remote parts of the country such as Alaska or on tribal lands, including reservations such as the Navajo Nation reservation, which spreads across 27,000-plus square miles of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Of the estimated 9.7 million people in the U.S. who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, 13% live on tribal lands, data from the 2020 U.S. Census shows.

Most Native American women live in urban areas, which is where they are most often reported missing and their remains, when discovered, are most often unidentified, says Anguelov, a political economist and associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

“This is the story you never hear,” he says. “There seems to be a migration out of Native lands that’s making women vulnerable.”

Anguelov and coauthors Morgan Hawes, of Bridgewater State University, and Danielle Slakoff, of Sacramento State University, examined 7,454 cases of women of various demographic backgrounds who had been reported missing or whose remains had not yet been identified.

White women comprised 65% of those two types of cases in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. About 2% involved Native American women aged 18 years and older, the researchers write in their paper, “Understanding the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Crisis: An Analysis of the NamUs Database,” published in March 2023.

Some of the other main takeaways:

  • Regardless of race, women were 250% more likely to be found dead and categorized as unidentified in states with relatively high population densities than in states with lower population densities.
  • About 48% of all unidentified women’s remains were found in the Northeast, and about 28% were in New England. Meanwhile, about 5% of cases came from the Mountain West, a region that includes Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming and is home to multiple reservations.
  • There is “a lack of consistent and reliable information about missing persons at the local, state, and national level,” the researchers write. Ten states require authorities to input data on missing people into NamUs. Other states do so on a voluntary basis.
  • Journalists play a key role in spurring change. “The media set the agenda with regard to important societal issues, and the media have the power to make an issue important by deeming it important,” the researchers write.

It’s unclear what exactly has driven Native American women into densely populated areas, although many of those who left their tribal communities probably sought independence, better job opportunities or a place to hide from abusive partners, Anguelov says.

Another unanswered question: Why are Native American women’s bodies least likely to be identified?

One of the many possible reasons: “Maybe they’re starting new far away and don’t keep in touch or they’re estranged, or their family isn’t alive,” Anguelov says.

How news outlets cover female crime victims

News coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women has been long criticized as spotty and superficial. The news media “largely ignore the victimizations of Native American females,” writes Slakoff, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Sacramento State University, in her 2020 paper, “The Representation of Women and Girls of Color in United States Crime News.”

A growing body of research demonstrates that missing white women typically draw significantly more media attention than missing minority women. The late PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill first used the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” to describe this disparity in 2004.

Slakoff has written several papers investigating racial bias in news coverage.

In “The Differential Representation of Latina and Black Female Victims in Front-Page News Stories: A Qualitative Document Analysis,” published in Feminist Criminology in 2019, Slakoff and coauthor Pauline Brennan examine front-page stories that ran in four major newspapers — the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Houston Chronicle —  in 2006.

They studied a total of 131 crime stories about female victims who were either white, Black or Hispanic. Seventy-five stories focused on white females, 35 were about Black female victims and 21 were about Hispanic female victims. There were too few front-page stories about females from other minority groups, including Indigenous women and girls, for analysis.

Slakoff and Brennan learned that in addition to publishing more front-page stories about white female victims, news coverage of white female victims was more likely to feature “sympathetic narratives.”

“In the stories about Latina and Black women and girls, we commonly saw themes around them being in an unsafe environment, essentially telling the audience that these Latina and Black women and girl victims were in environments that were unsafe. It’s essentially normalizing their victimization,” Slakoff told The Objective, a nonprofit newsroom that reports on inequity in journalism, in a 2021 interview.

“On the flip side,” she added, “in the stories about white women and girl victims, we were seeing mentions of the fact that they were in safe environments, that nothing like this ever happened in this area. So we argue that this really fosters sympathy for the white women and girls. ‘How could they protect themselves if they were already in the safe area? It’s so unexpected.’”

3 tips for journalists

While Slakoff and Hawes, an assistant director at Bridgewater State University’s Office of Institutional Research, could not be reached for interviews, Anguelov shared these three tips for improving coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

1. Call attention to data problems.

Records from the FBI’s National Crime Information Center show that 5,491 Indigenous women were missing as of Dec. 31. According to NamUs, a project of the U.S. Department of Justice, there are currently 261 missing Indigenous women.

Both numbers likely represent a significant undercount. The total number of missing or murdered Indigenous women is unknown, in part because federal databases do not contain comprehensive national data, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2021. Also, federal law requires federal, state and local law enforcement agencies — but not tribal law enforcement agencies — to report missing people under the age of 21, but not those over 21.

Anguelov urges journalists to call attention to data discrepancies and problems in how data is collected and made available to the public.

“Just reporting on the fact we need better data is very helpful,”he says.

2. Include advocacy organizations in news stories about missing and murdered women.

“Oftentimes, folks who are in vulnerable situations get information on where to find help from news stories,” Anguelov explains.

He notes that some people might prefer to seek help from a nonprofit organization that’s doing work in the community than a law enforcement agency, especially if the person needing help abuses drugs or lacks authorization to be in the U.S.

He recommends journalists report more often on the efforts of nonprofit groups that assist and advocate on behalf of female crime victims and Indigenous women and girls.

“Raise the visibility of those nonprofits that are out to help marginalized populations,” he says.

3. Report on solved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

It’s difficult for researchers to determine which actions, conditions or other factors are most likely to help authorities solve cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women without more information about cases that already have been solved or otherwise closed.

Once a case is closed, it is removed from NamUs, Anguelov says. Without contacting individual law enforcement agencies and collecting information about each solved case, it’s difficult to know what led investigators to find a missing woman, identify previously unidentified remains or solve a murder.

Journalists, he says, can help fill that gap in information by reporting on successfully resolved cases.

“Right now, we have no data on women who returned, women who survived and solved cases,” he says. “Can someone tell us some of the things that helped?”

Other resources

The image above was obtained from the Flickr account of Heather D and is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.

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