(NewsNation Now) — Chelsea Hunter’s 19-year-old sister, Sierra, disappeared in Oklahoma in April. Sierra Hunter is one face of an epidemic of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women across the United States.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Native American women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists homicide as the third leading cause of death for Native American women aged 10-24.
Nicole Wagon of Wyoming lost two daughters — one was murdered in 2019, and another was found dead in 2020.
Denae Shanidiin of Utah has devoted herself to raising awareness of the issue since her aunt Priscilla was killed more than three decades ago. That case is still unsolved.
“We all have relatives who have gone missing or who have been murdered,” Shanidiin said. “Currently, there are thousands of unsolved cases. And the response from the FBI, law enforcement is often they don’t have the resources to solve these cases.”
And then a case like Gabby Petito’s disappearance captures the nation’s attention.
According to NPR, in Wyoming alone, Indigenous people have been the victims in 21% of the homicides, even though they make up 3% of the population. The coverage the cases get tends to focus on the victims, with “negative character framing,” according to Cara Chambers, chair of the state task force that released the report on Indigenous homicides.
“We’re seeing this extraordinary display of resources and attention on this one girl,” Shanidiin said. “And we have to fight for that kind of attention in that recognition of our pain every single day. And it’s so exhausting.”
Statistics show Indigenous women go missing at 10 times the national average, and the vast majority of disappearances and murders are never solved.
According to research, distrust of law enforcement means some cases aren’t reported promptly. Stereotypes and prejudice can also lead to a delayed or limited investigation. And jurisdictional conflicts mean white suspects often aren’t held accountable for crimes on tribal lands.
However, thanks to tireless efforts by victims’ families — through demonstrations and demands for change — many states are enacting legislation to address the issue and fund investigations. Families are hoping the measures can solve or at least mitigate the ongoing wave of murders and disappearances.
There is support at the federal level, as well. Deb Haaland made history as the first Native American to be appointed as secretary of the interior by President Joe Biden, and she has launched a Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services (BIA-OJS) to pursue justice for missing or murdered American Indians and Alaska natives.