By Shereen Siewert

More than 100 riders from across the country turned out last week for a motorcycle ride that brought attention to the many missing and murdered Indigenous woman and girls, an ongoing human rights crisis that is touching many families in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

The MMIWG, MMIP and Opioid Awareness Ride was held June 24-25 beginning at the Oneida Powwow Grounds and ending in Lac du Flambeau. The Wisconsin Indigenous Riders Awareness Group, which aims to promote education and appreciation for Indigenous people, organized the event.

The statistics are eye-opening. Native American women make up a significant portion of missing and murdered cases nationwide. Not only is the murder rate ten times higher than the national average for women living on reservations, but murder is the third leading cause of death for Native women, according to the advocacy group Native Hope.

MMIWG and MMIP refer to the high number of Indigenous women and girls and Indigenous people who are missing and never found or who are murdered, said Ho-Chunk Tribal Judge Tricia Zunker.

“This crisis is something that tribal leaders and tribal communities have been working to address for decades, but it is gaining more awareness in recent years,” said Zunker, who gave presentations last year on the issue to the Diversity Affairs Commission of the Marathon County Board as well as to Wausau City Council. “In reality, though, this is an epidemic that has existed since the first explorers arrived on the continent and captured Indigenous women for slaves or other human trafficking.”

Data from Amnesty International show 84% of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime. One in three Indigenous women will be raped in her lifetime. And 88% of the time, the perpetrators of violence and sexual assault against Indigenous women are non-Native.

A 98-page Amnesty International Report, released in May, came 15 years after the organization published a study on the crisis of sexual violence against Native women. Tarah Demant, the report lead, said the organization rarely revisits an issue in this way. But after failing to see any significant decrease in these crimes despite a series of related federal policies, it was clear they needed to reinvestigate, Demant said, in a May 2022 report from The Guardian.

In 2010, the Tribal Law and Order Act was enacted, allowing tribal courts to sentence perpetrators to up to three years behind bars. Additionally, a U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down this week allows states to prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes against a Native person on tribal lands.

Although TLOA had some positive effects on women’s safety, it still only allows for limited sentencing and the requirements to implement it are “onerous”, according to the report. As of October 2021, only 16 tribes had implemented it. At the same time, many tribes don’t have the needed funding to be able to move forward with prosecutions, according to the report.

“All these half measures are Band-Aids on a tumor,” Demant told The Guardian.

Zunker told Wausau Pilot & Review there are many contributing factors to the MMIWG crisis, whether it is jurisdictional issues (tribal, local, state or federal) causing confusion and delay; failure to investigate properly (erroneously classifying the person as a runaway, instead, for instance); failure to classify the death properly as a homicide; failure to classify the victim as Indigenous; the role of public education; lack of mental health support; lack of community support; vulnerable victims and more.

Photo: Wisconsin Indigenous Riders Awareness Group Facebook Page

“The role of public education in Wisconsin in addressing this crisis is also critical – from ensuring Act 31 compliance to eradicating derogatory and dehumanizing Native American mascots, nicknames and imagery from public schools,” Zunker said. “Dehumanization leads to violence and policies and practices that allow for dehumanization of an entire race of people have no place in our schools.”

Ultimately, Demant said, sexual violence against Indigenous women is a human rights crisis, one that the entire US government needs to come together to address.

She said: “The U.S. government is obligated by its international human rights law obligations, and frankly its own treaties here in the United States with tribes, to do more to actually solve this problem.”