wheres the data

Posted November 1, 2021 by Angela Pruitt

"This data crisis and racist media bias, in conjunction with the generational trauma colonists have created and continue to create for our Native communities, must be addressed."

Where’s the Data? Lack of Media Coverage Magnifies the Ongoing Effects of Colonialism on Indigenous Communities Looking for Answers

By: Angela Pruitt

November 1, 2021

Gabby Petito’s disappearance and untimely death this summer galvanized the media into a reporting frenzy that has left many wondering how and why her story received such extreme coverage compared to that of the widespread missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirits (“MMIWG”).[1] While it may be easy to jump to superficial hypotheses, a deeper look shows systemic and cultural flaws that have plagued the Americas for centuries and disproportionately impacted Native American and Alaska Native communities.[2]

First and foremost, the generational trauma that torments Indigenous people dates back to Columbus’ time when he began to traffic Indigenous children among so many other heinous and reprehensible crimes against Indigenous American communities.[3] One horror melted into another as trafficking of Indigenous children came under the United States federal purview with the Indian Civilization Act Fund in 1819 that “adopted an Indian Boarding School Policy expressly intended to implement cultural genocide through the removal and reprogramming of American Indian and Alaska Native children to accomplish the systematic destruction of Native cultures and communities.”[4] The crimes perpetrated by these religiously motivated boarding schools came into focus this year with the discovery of thousands of unmarked children’s graves on their properties in the United States and Canada.[5] Researchers estimate that “as many as 40,000 children may have died in or because of their poor care at the U.S.-run schools, but the federal government does not know or is unwilling to say how many children even attended the schools, how many died in or went missing from them, or even how many schools existed.”[6]

This negligent lack of data collection or lack of data transparency is eerily similar to the lack of data on MMIWG today. The Native Woman’s Wilderness, a group “created to bring Native women together,”[7] has compiled a telling list of states that currently collect and report statistics on MMIWG. Only twelve states currently collect and report their statistics, one state has a task force but no reported statistics and one state has publicized “a strategic plan and toolkit” for an MMIWG task force but no publicly available statistics.[8]  Further, “The National Crime Information Center reports that, in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases.”[9]

The Urban Indian Health Institute (“UIHI”) recently studied this pervasive trend of poor and misrepresentative data on MMIWG and compiled “a comprehensive snapshot of the MMIWG crisis in urban American Indian and Alaska Native communities and the institutional practices that allow them to disappear not once, but three times—in life, in the media, and in the data.”[10] Yet, even the UIHI, in an effort to collect the data that would shine a light on this crisis, was met with unresponsive law enforcement agencies, fractured and inconsistent reporting, and, in some cases, a complete inability to search for and compile data on only American Indian, Native American, or Alaska Native individuals.[11]

Interestingly, a content analysis of the media coverage in the areas that were able to be covered in the report demonstrated a bias for media reporting almost entirely on reservation-based violence or disappearances which works, “to collectively minimize this issue in urban spaces.”[12] Paired with the fact that approximately “71% of American Indian and Alaska Natives live in urban areas”[13], it becomes clear how devastatingly poor the data collection and media reporting is for our native communities. Finally, a language analysis of the reservation-based reporting demonstrated pervasively, sometimes overtly racist victim-blaming that supported “stereotypes of American Indian and Alaska Native people as solely living on reservations or in rural areas [and] perpetuate[d] perceptions of tribal lands as violence-ridden environments.”[14]

This data crisis and racist media bias, in conjunction with the generational trauma colonists have created and continue to create for our Native communities, must be addressed. Legislatively, several steps have been taken. Including the 2020 unanimous passage of the Not Invisible Act of 2019 that, among other tasks, created an advisory committee composed of law enforcement, tribal leaders, federal partners, service providers, and survivors to make recommendations to the Department of Interior and Department of Justice.[15] Prior even to the Not Invisible Act of 2019, President Trump signed an executive order in 2019 creating a task force for MMIWG more commonly known as Operation Lady Justice.[16] Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the formation of the Missing & Murdered Unit, building on President Biden’s executive order and the Not Invisible Act’s foundation,[17] which is currently actively seeking nominations for commission members.[18]

While these steps seem to finally be moving the United States towards equitable treatment for our Native inhabitants, the revealing media coverage of Gabby Petito’s case again highlights the media’s power over our attention and over our culture. Without greater diversity and coverage of MMIWG, the media continues to play into our willful societal ignorance of the plight of so many MMIWG and ultimately handicaps our ability to truly grasp the full gravity of the risks faced every day by Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirits.

[1] Jeremy Barr, Even Within the Media, Some Question the Amount of Gabby Petito Coverage, Wash. Post (Sept. 23, 2021, 9:42 AM); Hallie Golden, Families of Missing and Murdered Native Women Ask: ‘Where’s the Attention for Ours?’, Guardian (Sept. 24, 2021, 1:00 AM).

[2] See generally Xochitl Hernandez, No More Stolen Sisters: Behind the History, Colonization, and American Epidemic of Missing Indigenous Women, NBC (Oct. 17, 2021), (discussing the history of colonization in the United States as it relates to Native Americans and MMIWG).

[3] Id.

[4] U.S. Indian Boarding School History, The Nat’l Native Am. Boarding Sch. Healing Coal. (2020).

[5] Brad Brooks, Native Americans Decry Unmarked Graves, Untold History of Boarding Schools, Reuters (June 22, 2021, 4:29 PM); Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, Indian Boarding Schools' Traumatic Legacy, and the Fight to Get Native Ancestors Back, NPR (Aug. 28, 2021, 6:00 AM).

[6] See Brooks, supra note 5.

[7] Native Women’s Wilderness.

[8] Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women, Native Women’s Wilderness.

[9] Urban Indian Health Institute, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls 2 (2017).

[10] Id.

[11] See id. at 12–17 (documenting the struggles with FOIA requests from law enforcement agencies across the country).

[12] Id. at 18.

[13] We Count, Urban Indian Health Inst.

[14] See Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls, supra note 9, at 18–19.

[15] Not Invisible Act of 2019, S. 982, 116th Cong. (2019).

[16] See generally Missing & Murdered Unit, U.S. Dep’t of the Interior: Indian Affairs, (last visited Oct. 26, 2021) (outlining Operation Lady Justice and the purpose of the Missing & Murdered Unit).

[17] Secretary Haaland Creates New Missing & Murdered Unit to Pursue Justice for Missing or Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, U.S. Dep’t of the Interior (Apr. 1, 2021).

[18] See Press Release, Justice and Interior Departments Take Next Steps in Implementation of Not Invisible Act: Announce Call for Nominations For Commission Members and Upcoming Tribal Consultations, Dep’t of Justice: Off. of Public Affairs (Aug. 4, 2021)The Not Invisible Act Commission, U.S. Dep’t of the Interior: Indian Affairs.

Image courtesy of Photograph of Protester with Red Handprint, in Lynn Gehl, Seven Key Learnings from the MMIWG Legal Analysis on Genocide, briarpatch (Mar. 19, 2020).

Monday, November 1, 2021