“Who do we turn to?” was the question I heard from the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women. For centuries Indigenous women have disappeared and been killed — destroying families, and tearing at the fabric of communities. This epidemic is not new and the list of missing women grows longer each year.
Earlier this month, I heard some of these women’s stories firsthand when I traveled to the Blackfeet Nation for the first-ever U.S. forum on missing and murdered Indigenous women. As the former U.S. ambassador for global women's issues, I’m deeply familiar with the problem of violence against women, but I am always heartbroken by the devastation of those who have experienced this horror. Every person in the room at the Blackfeet forum felt the raw pain of the families who bravely shared their stories. The families’ requests were fair: they wanted to be treated with respect and they yearned for justice for their loved ones.
Vice President Biden asked me to represent him at the forum because he cares deeply about Indian Country and about ending violence against women and girls. Native American women experience the highest levels of violence in the United States. We don’t even know how many of these women are kidnapped or killed, because the data collection is so poor — a symptom of the disjointed law enforcement effort that leaves families feeling like there is no one to help them.
Justice for these women and their families must be a priority. Vice President Biden believes that tribal governments have an inherent right to protect their people. He took that position at the beginning of his career, when he voted as a U.S. Senator to support the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. He took that position in 1994, when he fought — unsuccessfully — to get funding to support tribal governments’ efforts to protect women and girls in Indian Country. And he took that position when he served in the White House, and successfully pushed Congress to narrow the gap in tribal jurisdictions, so that non-native Americans could no longer abuse wives or girlfriends with impunity on tribal lands. The Obama-Biden Administration also held the first-ever trilateral meeting with Canada and Mexico in 2016 on violence against Indigenous women and girls, acknowledging that this is an issue that extends beyond our borders.
Our efforts to address violence against Indigenous women need to be comprehensive. Throughout my career, I have worked with leaders, activists, and government officials around the world on problems facing women, and it has always been clear to me in every country I have visited, that the different challenges women face and the solutions to address those challenges are interrelated. Violence against women cannot be addressed without strong laws, political will, access to health care and victims’ services, and education and opportunity.
The same is true with the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women. There are complex jurisdictional questions, historical trauma, a lack of access to culturally sensitive services, and a lack of resources and support. So while the Vice President supports federal legislation to address these issues — including the “Not Invisible Act,” “Savannah’s Act”, or the “Survive Act” — he understands that, alone, these bills can only do so much: they can give us access to better data, or support tribes in building up their own programs and resources, but on their own don’t take into consideration the complex web of factors that affect Native women’s lives.
Ending the murders and abductions of Indigenous women — helping them find the safety and opportunities all people deserve — will take a comprehensive approach, one that increases federal resources for tribal programs, expands tribal authority, boosts coordination among law enforcement agencies, and improves data collection and exchange.
To get there, we need real leadership and commitment. We need an Administration that will build and expand on the work of the Obama-Biden Administration and its strong collaboration with Indigenous women’s groups. We need more efforts like the MMIW forum, where women and their families can raise their voices and demand that we all come together to fight for justice.
Cathy Russell served in the Obama-Biden Administration as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. She recently attended the first-ever U.S. forum on missing and murdered Indigenous women on behalf of Vice President Joe Biden.