Deaths and Disappearance in Indian Country

People march to call for justice for missing and murdered indigenous women June 14 at the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma in Concho, Okla. A Wyoming task force has been created to address the high rate of violence against Native American people in the state. 

Violence has a ripple effect.

It starts with the victim and then sears outward in all directions. It destroys families, takes away friends, and deprives us of colleagues and neighbors. Even when we don’t know the person directly, violence still affects us. It keeps a community from realizing its full promise, stealing a bit of its vitality with each brutal act.

It’s this cruel impact that makes it incumbent on us to understand why violence occurs and devise ways to address it. We might be tempted to turn our gaze away, to find sights less concerning. But that does nothing but perpetuate the suffering.

For too long, the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women has been largely ignored, allowing the pain and destruction it causes to fester. The numbers are startling: American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.5 times as likely to experience violent crimes, according to a 2013 National Congress of American Indians policy brief. They are at least twice as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted compared with other groups.

Given that unfortunate reality, it’s heartening that this issue is beginning to receive more attention – and in some cases, action. States like Montana and Washington have enacted laws that attempt to combat the problem. In Wyoming, a task force to address the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous people held its first meeting recently. While the group, which Gov. Mark Gordon announced this spring, is still in its infancy, we believe its work is vital and should receive support from across the state.

The task force must first understand the scope of the problem, which is hampered by the lack of data that exists. There are a host of issues to explore and examine, including how to improve coordination between tribal officials and local and state law enforcement, so that when an Indigenous person is missing, the response is fast and effective.

But the group’s effectiveness will be limited if, when its job is done, state lawmakers and leaders don’t act. The task force, as Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, recently said, is a good step. But it’s only the first.

“I think the more we start looking at issues, I think more things will come to light and I just hope my colleagues and I are up to the task of thinking about solutions,” she told the Star-Tribune’s Chris Aadland.

In the past, we’ve seen too many instances when careful studies are ignored by lawmakers once they convene in Cheyenne. So when this task force completes its work, we all need to pay attention. And then it’s incumbent on our leaders to take decisive steps to reduce the violence. The stakes are simply too high for them to cast this matter aside.

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