Media contributes to injustices against Indigenous peoples

Shameful history combines with modern problems, hurts Indigenous communities



Advocating for Indigenous people is expecially important at WSU, considering we occupy their land.

KESTRA ENGSTROM, Managing editor

When a white woman goes missing, there is often a media frenzy surrounding the case. Some, such as the recent murder of van life influencer Gabby Petito, have captured the attention of the nation. The massive amount of attention given to these cases has been dubbed “missing white woman syndrome.”

Although these women deserve to be found and get justice, the frenzies that surround their cases often end up exposing a much larger problem: the sheer number of Indigenous women that go missing in the U.S. each year. Many of these women’s disappearances are never reported properly, and those that are, are tragically rarely found.

There were nearly 6,000 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls reported in 2016; only 116 were logged in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) database, according to a report by the Urban Indian Health Institute, an organization dedicated to public health research and data for Indigenous peoples.

This extreme discrepancy illustrates how neglected these cases are and suggests there are more women and girls whose disappearances were never reported.

It is even more concerning because Indigenous women experience violence at alarmingly higher rates than the general population. What crimes are occurring under the nose of justice because they are never investigated?

Indigenous people are victims of crimes at over two times the national rate, according to data from the Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Indigenous women are also over three times more likely to be raped than white women, and homicide is the third leading cause of death among Indigenous women between the ages of 10 and 24.

Emily Nate, sophomore French and sociology double major, said seeing statistics like this in the U.S. is appalling.

“The way that [Indigenous peoples] have been treated in America’s past and present makes the stats somewhat less shocking, but not less tragic,” she said.

Because the issue persists in both the past and the present, we must look to both for the root causes of the problem, such as the government-funded — and often church-affiliated — “boarding schools” for Indigenous children operated in the U.S for centuries. These schools operated in the past with the goal of the total cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples, according to this article.

Indigenous culture was not the only thing lost in the genocides at these residential schools, according to the article. Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their parents and sent to the schools over the course of two centuries and countless never returned.

Only recently are the bodies of thousands of missing Indigenous children being discovered beneath these boarding schools, buried haphazardly in unmarked graves without so much as a note or death record so their families could know what happened to them. Entire generations were lost to these schools, according to the article. Children often died from starvation, abuse, disease and countless other horrible things that no child should ever experience

It was not until 1978 that parents could opt out of having their children sent to such schools with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, and even then, some schools continued to operate into the 1980s and 1990s.

America’s (very recent past) treatment of Indigenous people and regard for their lives was so obviously lacking that it is no surprise the same treatment continues into the present. This negligence only enables the number of missing Indigenous women to continue growing every year.

Popular media plays a role in this disparity. Julie Toedtli, senior information systems management major, said news often focuses on stories that produce fear in readers.

“The more people can relate to the story, the more scared they will be,” she said. “Since [Indigenous people] are minority peoples, those stories likely do not sell as well, sadly.”

Hesitation from media outlets to report on missing Indigenous women is problematic because, oftentimes, the more attention a case gets, the more likely it is to be solved due to mounting pressure from the public to do so.

For example, in the disappearance of Petito, law enforcement was under so much pressure to find her due to the media blitz that they discovered the bodies of nine other missing people in the process, including multiple people of color, according to the article. Imagine how much earlier those people could have been found had they received the same attention as Petito.

“The number of Indigenous women who have gone missing would make their cases less novel, so they may get less coverage for it,” Nate said. “The large number of cases also makes it more alarming, but people may become desensitized to it, too.”

Perhaps the general desensitization of the public is why media and law enforcement often neglect missing person cases involving Indigenous women. But it would be ignorant to assume that there is no police bias involved, especially when disappearances or crimes occur on reservation land.

These aspects of modern media and policing biases, combined with the U.S.’ shameful historical treatment of native peoples, creates a cruel system that neglects and overlooks missing Indigenous women.

Just because police and media often ignore cases of missing Indigenous women does not mean that those women’s tribes and families simply forget about them.

Indigenous activists across the nation are working on efforts to “decolonize data” by creating more complete and accessible databases for missing Indigenous women and girls, such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Database created by Indigenous research and data collection organization, the Sovereign Bodies Institute. This movement gives Indigenous people agency over their own people and helps to aid the disparities that exist in databases.

Meanwhile, Indigenous people have been advocating for their missing loved ones for centuries. It is thanks to their efforts that this issue is finally becoming part of the national conversation.

Because of their powerful voices and activism, many states have begun creating initiatives to attempt to address this disparity and lessen the number of Indigenous women and girls who are murdered or go missing each year. In Washington, for example, the office of the Attorney General announced in May that a task force would be launched to investigate and address the systemic causes of the high numbers of missing Indigenous women in the state.

Keeping this issue at the forefront of our minds is critical in a state like Washington; according to the Urban Indian Health Institute, our state has the second-highest number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the nation.

It is doubly important at a school like WSU. Every one of our campuses, from Nate’s home on the Pullman campus to Toedtli’s on the Vancouver campus, occupies land that is the traditional homelands of one or more native Indigenous tribes — the Pullman campus resides on the homelands of Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) Tribe and Palus people, while Vancouver is located on the land of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.

When we reside on their land, we have an obligation to acknowledge the presence of Indigenous people and a moral imperative to advocate for their safety and protection. Just because an issue is not being covered by popular media does not mean it is not happening. WSU and Washington state as a whole must continue the work to elevate the voices and protect the lives of the people whose land we occupy.