Uncovering the crisis: missing and murdered indigenous people

Reading Time: 3 minutes Michelle Brown, the chair of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Peoples (MMIP+) organization came to UVU to spread awareness about the ongoing crisis that indigenous peoples are facing.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

As part of the UVU’s Native American Initiative, Michelle Brown, the head of Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women+ and an advocate of the indigenous peoples’ rights, was invited to speak about the issue of the targeted cruelty native people are encountering and have encountered throughout history. 
Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska and spending time with family and friends of the To’aheedliinii (Water Flows Together) Navajo clan in New Mexico, Brown experienced the harsh realities of life on the reservation. Oftentimes, people living on reservations do not have necessities like electricity or running water, and seeing how people perceive and act towards natives, Brown understood how little protection the native people have.  

On top of that, a member of Brown’s tribe and extended family was found murdered in 2018. After this tragic event, Michelle got more involved in activism focused on solving these injustices and bringing more light to these issues. 

“And it wasn’t until that happened that it really came close enough to touch my life. I realized I needed to do something more than just be aware and start educating myself further,” stated Brown. “So, to do something more, I felt such a weight and heaviness from knowing that someone in my family, someone who has been in my life, not for so long, but long enough to really make an impact on me. I decided that I wanted to not only learn about it. I wanted to do something in the community that would hopefully make change along with many others.” 

Brown emphasized the importance of understanding the historical context that led to the crisis of missing indigenous women. She highlighted the pre-colonization era, where indigenous beliefs centered around Earth as their first mother.  

“No distinction of seeing oneself different from the land,” Brown noted, emphasizing the interconnectedness between indigenous people and the land. With the arrival of settlers, entitlement to land and the concept of manifest destiny drove the colonization narrative. 

The Dawes Act of 1887 and forced minimalization severed indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands, leading to displacement, trauma and loss of cultural identity. Brown underscored the ongoing impact of colonialism, manifesting in environmental degradation, sterilizations, residential schools and the least desired reservation lands.  

“It’s a very humbling experience for me when I would go back home and have all of those types of amenities that aren’t available to some people who live on the reservation,” she shared. 

Brown delved into the root causes of the crisis, exposing the damaging effects of industries like oil fracking and mining on reservation lands. She drew attention to the alarming rates of violence against Indigenous women, with murder being the third leading cause of death and one in three Native American women experiencing rape in their lifetimes.  

“So, essentially, as a population, we’ve suffered a lot of trauma. We’ve suffered a lot of setbacks in terms of education, ability to afford housing, food, and other aspects of life that would make it easier for us,” Brown explained. 

Brown highlighted the jurisdictional issues hindering justice. Tribal sovereignty clashes with federal and local law enforcement, creating gaps in investigations and prosecutions. The dire need for databases, victim services, and preventive measures underscored the urgency of addressing this crisis comprehensively.  

“There’s not a lot of infrastructure per tribe of what to do when people go missing or are found murdered,” Brown pointed out, shedding light on the challenges faced by indigenous communities. 

Brown passionately advocated for improved media sensitivity, condemning negative portrayals and biased reporting. She drew a striking comparison between the extensive coverage of cases like Gabby Petito’s and the lackluster attention given to missing indigenous women. The discrepancy in search efforts and monetary rewards further exposed the systemic biases ingrained in media reporting.  

“I’m really passionate about just media portrayal of MMIW people,” Brown stated, emphasizing the need for fair representation. 

Addressing the media directly, Brown urged for sustained coverage, sensitivity training and a commitment to fair portrayal. The importance of accurately reporting victims’ race and tribal affiliation was emphasized to counter misrepresentations in police reports.  

The presentation concluded with a discussion on the task force’s initiatives in Utah, emphasizing the need for data collection and collaboration between agencies and victim support services. Brown urged individuals to engage with their communities, educate themselves on indigenous issues and hold legislators accountable for enacting laws that support indigenous rights. “Those are some of the things that you can do,” Brown said. 

In her speech, Michelle Brown highlighted to light the scale of the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. By discussing the historical complexities and present-day realities, Brown presented the challenges faced by indigenous communities. But more importantly, she encouraged students to carry forward the knowledge gained, challenge stereotypes, and actively contribute to rectifying the systemic issues that perpetuate this crisis. For those looking to support MMIW+, please visit the website of the organization or its Instagram page.