What is justice? Many of us have clearly delineated what justice means to us based upon our own experiences, education, and world views. However, concretely defined boundaries become porous – fluid even – as increasing attention turns towards Missing and Murdered Indigenous People across North America. People affected by and working to address this complex issue grapple with deeply entangled histories and often more convoluted contemporary barriers as they seek solutions for documenting past injustices while identifying solutions to prevent continued trauma and injustice against Indigenous peoples.
I want to explain my title because one of the concepts I use in my research and my teaching is the concept of surviving knowledge. This idea of surviving knowledge is a really a play on words. Thinking about knowledge – surviving knowledge – as the deep knowledge we, as Indigenous people, bring with us through the wisdom of our ancestors as well as the knowledge we have acquired through colonized Western knowledge inculcation. As Indigenous peoples, we have survived and maintained our ancestral cultural knowledge despite many attempts; both historically and in a contemporary context, to eradicate it. At the same time, we have the ability to sort through Western knowledge to determine what is useful or beneficial for our communities and merge this with our Indigenous knowledge systems. I think it’s really important for a lot of scholars to think about it this way because in many ways, when we talk about decolonizing institutions or Indigenizing institutions, there is a lot of Western knowledge that provides utility to our communities. Essentially, it’s a way to approach knowledge systems in a way that honors Indigenous knowledge while recognizing both the historic trauma and potentially value-added components of Western knowledge and Western actors in a continuing struggle for Indigenous self-determination.
I recently facilitated the first Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force meeting in Montana. This task force was made possible through Montana SB312, one of two important pieces of legislation written into Montana law in 2019. The second piece of legislation is Hanna’s Act, which puts in place personnel to coordinate missing persons reporting and investigation. The following day I was the keynote speaker at the first joint law enforcement and community member Missing Persons Training. I decided to focus my keynote address around the primary themes that came out of the initial task force meeting. These themes included stories, strategies, and statistics, broadly conceived. I wanted to share those thoughts here, too, because they were generated by tribal leaders and representatives, local, state, and federal law enforcement, and community members.
However, context matters. Our goal for the first meeting was to initiate the process of understanding the scope of the issue – Missing Indigenous Persons – then generate a working list of additional stakeholders to add to the Task Force based upon our understanding. Next steps include identifying barriers across jurisdictional boundaries and identifying ways to improve communication and collaboration across stakeholder groups along with developing a statewide data collection system specific to Missing Indigenous Persons. We were, and remain, very much concerned about those who have been murdered as well, which in part leads to some of the tension found when groups come together seeking solutions to the issue. But for the purpose of this meeting, it is important to note we focused on Missing Indigenous Persons.
Thematically, stories appear straightforward, however they provide the deep context for each person’s understanding and reason for working towards solutions to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. Strategies was a thematic term where we were really thinking more about time, and statistics focused thematically on data. We need to think more critically about stories, and time, and data because we all conceptualize these differently, yet we are charged with finding ways to work with one another effectively. It truly is a matter of life or death.
Defining justice is central to understanding each person’s story as it relates to Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. The tension between Indigenous and Western perspectives complicates defining justice and establishing authentic collaboration. More troubling yet, the institutional definitions of justice differ between similarly situated sovereign nations and actors within these established nations. Predictable may be a more appropriate word to describe differing epistemological orientations toward justice as a concept, particularly given the history and legacy of settler colonialism that marks the unique contours of each nation’s definition.
Less obvious are the multiple facets of justice that exist within the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People issue. For some, the terms “missing” and “murdered” are collapsed into a single injustice against another person, as a result, the issue cannot be separated. Similarly, some combine the terms and use them interchangeably with the term “human trafficking” and view justice more broadly in that they seek to dismantle and hold accountable organized crime rings responsible for a host of crimes. For others, justice means following protocol to investigate, apprehend, charge, and convict those who have committed these crimes and hold them accountable before a court of law based upon available evidence and applicable legal tenets. For others, the terms are separated. Justice means focusing on prevention in order to reduce the number of missing Indigenous people, thereby reducing the number of murdered Indigenous people.
Deeper notions of justice compel some people to focus on cases of murdered Indigenous people that have proven difficult to solve or have not received appropriate attention from law enforcement. Competing notions – and definitions – of justice between communities and law enforcement create seemingly insurmountable barriers to authentic solutions. Deeper still are the undercurrents of injustice resulting from settler colonialism spanning multiple generations – powerful forces demanding accountability for the lives rendered invisible and the families of those whose grief still tastes as acrid as it did the moment their loved one went missing.
This is why stories matter. We need to hear one another in ways we have not intentionally done so previously. Dr. Sweeney Windchief recently spoke at a conference for Indigenous educational leaders, commenting “How you move through the space you’re in tells others a lot about you”. The Task Force meeting allotted time for stories – even if only four hours. And what we find in our Indigenous communities is when we talk about Missing Indigenous Peoples, non-Native people tend to get very impatient with our stories. Worse, they are tired of hearing our stories or do not want to hear them at all. And that can be very, very frustrating because the pain and grief people are experiencing is important and people need to hear those stories. On the other hand, in the work that I do in activism, we also know that stories are often re-told so many times that people start to tune them out. So thinking about stories as the vehicles by which we know ourselves, how can we can best use stories to work and communicate with one another? Because sometimes we have community members, local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, state law enforcement, and the people who have lost family members – all of these different people with all of these different experiences – often tied to the same story. We need to think about how understanding one another’s stories provides us opportunities to better collaborate with one another.
How we move about in the space we’re in says a lot about us. Our ability to listen to other people, our ability to share our story to the extent we are comfortable, and the ways we choose to work with one another, or against one another, says a lot about us. The FBI presented during the training about how to organize a search party and it really spoke to stories. When people are coming together and mobilizing and organizing, we have to understand people’s stories. When we want to find people who have gone missing, we must come together very quickly, be able to hear one another, and then be able to mobilize in order to locate the person. It makes a difference.
I want to address our Native communities’ relationship with law enforcement as well. Brené Brown’s work comes to mind when I think about these stories. If you are unfamiliar with her work, I encourage you to pick up “Dare to Lead”. She urges us to assume people are working from the best intention (and I am paraphrasing, of course). When an issue is as complex and emotionally fraught at the one before us, I would be remiss if I did not remind myself, and others, that we need to first give others the benefit of the doubt and assume everybody is working from the best intention because they are part of the story. If we do not think about stories when we are talking about missing people and we do not listen to other people’s stories, to include the stories of law enforcement personnel, who might not know the missing people but are trying to help us, we cannot accomplish our goals.
I keep coming back the concept of time in terms of strategies for addressing Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. I have these moments where I start thinking very critically about time. Montana passed legislation that is aggressive about time and we are very happy about that. We want to get some stuff done. We’re tired of not getting anything done. You’re tired of not getting anything done. We’re all so stinking sick of not getting anything done that we want to get this together, we want a fast timeline, we want to get some stuff done. Right? Now we have SB312 coupled with Hanna’s Act, and that is impressive too, right? Multiple states such as Washington, Arizona, South Dakota, among others have passed or are working towards legislation to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. A whole lot of stuff is going on. In addition, federal legislators are working to get multiple bills passed in the Senate and the House with seemingly little resistance. But we would be wise to remember that law is a byproduct of ethics and it is not static. It is very fluid. The question remains; if this issue is so important, if time is so important, and being aggressive is so important and law is a byproduct of ethics, and ethics are really determined by our values, why was Hanna’s Act passed in 2019 when Hanna was killed in 2013? That doesn’t communicate urgency to me. It actually makes me pretty angry.
It makes me angry to hear people talk about how proud they are that we’ve been so aggressive. No one in particular, in general. It matters. The language we use when talking about the issue matters. I was given the opportunity to speak about the issue through a keynote and had to decide if I was going to address my anger or attempt to remain neutral and let the audience do the math and come to their own conclusions. However, just like saying the names of the missing and murdered matters, expressing the ways the largely symbolic policy currently being implemented is decades overdue matters. Hanna’s Act took seven years and we are supposed to buy in to the timeliness of this legislation?
The language matters. Montana’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force needed to discuss definitions. Who is a missing person? How are they classified? Who decides? What is the answer to that? During the joint community and law enforcement training the question was posed, “How long does a person have to be missing before you can report them missing?” Various answers were called out by those in the community session due to a general lack of accurate knowledge. However, we all watch TV. I watch Criminal Minds, so I reasonably assume I could work for the FBI. I also watched House and reasonably assumed I could perform surgery. This is often how we think. Essentially, we don’t know. And what the community defines as one type of crime, law enforcement might define differently – or not define as criminal at all. And what law enforcement defines as a crime the community might define differently. We have a lot of misunderstanding between both law enforcement and Native communities as well as different definitions and language used between law enforcement agencies. We are not using the same language and we need to figure out how to do that, too.
We also need to think about the ways our communities are doing a disservice to law enforcement as cases are being investigated or resolved. We need to think about the ways we talk to media, post on social media, or otherwise communicate knowingly false accounts of our interactions with law enforcement. Nobody wants to talk about this. I understand many people have experiences with law enforcement that have not been positive. However, there are others who have had experiences where law enforcement worked compassionately and effectively communicated with families of missing and subsequently located persons yet report otherwise. Our communities need to be accountable for the ways they create unnecessary barriers. I bring this up because I have personally experienced it and felt there was no appropriate way to correct the situation after the fact. People are complex so this happens for any number of reasons, but most likely because families and community members are hurting. I always wonder if it is because someone did not listen to their story when they needed it most. Or people stopped listening too soon. Maybe the story from law enforcement was not communicated well. We do not really know why people do the things they do; we just know there is a lot of pain and people are grieving. So, whatever we are doing, we are doing it wrong. Whether it is on the community side, whether it is on the law enforcement side, or whether it is a matter of convoluted legislation – it is irrelevant. We have to come up with a strategy where our language matches. Where we are listening to one another.
Statistics about Missing and Murdered Indigenous People are a central theme that arises consistently in all conversations about the issue. What is interesting about this is that statistics are being used to make the argument for data collection systems and creating more sophisticated, linking databases because the existing statistics are either non-existent, unreliable, unavailable, or inaccurate. Ironic.
However, the whole point of SB312 is to create a database and a Task Force. My involvement with the Montana governor’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons working group stemmed from reaching out to provide research and information about creating databases because we do not actually have good data. There are people throwing data out to the public who do not equally discuss the full limitations of their study and why those limitations greatly matter for interpreting the data. These data provide utility as a starting point, but to quote my colleague Michael Corrigan, “dirty data is dirty data”. That does not mean the data are bad, it simply means they should be used with caution, not certainty. I have not been able to determine why so many people, particularly policymakers, are using them as if they are reliable and accurate.
The way that data are being used can be very dangerous to our communities if the goal is to find solutions to Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. Statistics are powerful. A person can claim statistical certainty to incite an entire group of people to do really remarkable things that damage efforts towards a cause. Or incite an entire group of people to turn on government officials or law enforcement who are trying to help fix a problem. And in these instances, it often turns out that the data are not entirely accurate. Or there are very good explanations as to why those data are not an accurate representation of context. In many instances, inaccuracies or discrepancies across data sets are easily explained if you take the time to call somebody and ask the question. During my keynote I posed the question: “How many of you have taken a statistics class” and most hands in the audience went up. I then asked, “How many of you actually remember how to do what you learned in your statistics class?” and all but four hands went down. Why is it so many people working on this issue trust data and statistics placed before them despite the critical stance they take towards social issues in general?
I do the same thing at times. We read something from a source we trust and assume it is reliable and valid. We assume the media reporting the data from the source we trust is reporting it accurately because they have a responsibility to do that. And they might even think they are doing that, but often times they are not. We need to become better consumers of data and statistics. We have to have to help teach our communities to be better consumers of statistics. Better consumers of data. Its critical.
We also need to think about data in terms of our responsibility for prevention. If our goal is to prevent people from going missing, what data do we need to make that happen? How many people who are not in law enforcement feel confident to make that decision? If I put a poster board up on an imaginary wall, could you go up an write a list of data points we would need to solve this problem? Because sometimes, when I am mad I will post a rant on Facebook that sure sounds like I do. But that is not the case, even with my Ph.D. in this stuff. That takes us right back to stories. People tell other people’s stories through data. It can be very, very harmful if we are not paying attention. It is harmful when official reports from government agencies or research centers provide unreliable data. It is bad policy practice to craft legislation around data that is not placed in context, cannot be verified, or is not used with a full understanding of their limitations. Dirty data is dirty data. This is one of the key concerns moving forward with this issue. We need valid, reliable, cross-jurisdictional data collection and management that respects tribal self-determination and data sovereignty.
It is also very dangerous when you bring speakers or consultants into your communities and pay them ridiculous amounts of money to supply you with motivation and strategies developed through questionable data. I should point out that my profession provides a certain privilege to point out these issues. Our communities have been taken advantage of each time funding is associated with any type of initiative intended to improve the lives of our people. This must stop. Ask questions. Become better consumers of research, of the data that you use and the people you trust. This can be tricky for those involved with tribal politics, tribal government, or who live in a tribal community. However, as Chief Dull Knife College president Richard Little Bear notes with a smile, “If you are able to avoid tribal politics, you are the best politician on the reservation.” Mindfulness about data is the first area where data sovereignty and self-determination are operationalized in Native communities.
There are themes we discuss in meetings and then there are hallway conversations that feel somehow more important and far heavier. Let me be clear. There is no room for ego in this issue and it will take all of us working together to address it. When it comes to data, or strategies, or solutions, why is it so difficult to say, “I don’t know”? Or why is it so difficult to say, “We just passed a Senate bill in Montana to get that information because there is little reliable, valid data and everyone in the entire nation working on this issue knows it”. Why is that hard? Or, if we have the ability to find answers, why not say “I’m not quite sure, I’ll get back to you on that one”. You can say that too. It is okay to not have every answer to every single question. There are so many people who are experts in those areas, why not pass it off to somebody who is an expert? You do not have to be the expert. But we all want to be. Because we want to give people answers and we want to solve the problem because for so many of us, these stories are deeply personal.
Several meeting attendees were talking about the fact that when a person like me comes up to facilitate a meeting or give a talk, the first thing we start with is our story. And they are important stories. Very important stories. But for those working on solutions for this issue, it seems everybody in the room with the speaker has a similar story. It is appalling that violence against Indian people is so normalized that we are not taken aback by this fact.
So seven years to pass Hanna’s Act is timely? No.
That is not timely for me. Yet in December I watched Hanna’s mother, as part of Henny Scott’s search party, lend her full strength without complaint or resentment to another suffering mother despite her own seven years of aching grief. She was committed to making sure another mother had answers. Those are stories that matter. We can pat ourselves on the back for all the work we are doing here now, and I know Jason Small got beat up in the Montana Senate with SB312. Tribal government is hard, and community resource organizing is hard, and the things many law enforcement officers see and process emotionally are hard. But Malinda Harris worked hard for seven years and no one congratulated her for that with regard to moving any legislation forward. Hanna’s Act? Thank you Malinda Harris. It matters. Thank you to all of the people who supported it. To all of the people across the nation who referenced that. Thank you to all the people who prayed for that. Thank you to all of those people because it takes all of us every single time. Yet we gain some ground then retreat back to working in our own little silos as if the collective organizing did not make a difference. We cannot do that anymore.
Which is precisely why I decided to share this beyond the keynote in June. Montana’s strategy is to build interdisciplinary teams to work on these issues that recognizes every single person in this room is an expert within their own context who has something very valuable to offer. We know in our tribal context that our schools can reach everybody, foster parents, concerned community members who just happen to live in a convenient location where they see a lot of traffic, tribal presidents, law enforcement, everybody has a perspective and way to contribute to the solution. Even the FBI told us 80% of an imperfect plan is better than a 100% perfect plan that cannot be realized.
There are a lot of politics embedded in this issue. We know that no matter who is in this room, there are a lot of people not in the room and their voices and their stories are really, really important. My concern is, for those who will be representing Montana’s story at the capital in Washington, what happens when we are trying to work with federal legislation interacting with state legislation and the pool gets even narrower? Will we have a state Task Force, then a federal Task force at some point? And then who’s voices are going to be lost? And thinking about power dynamics, who is going to select the federal Task Force members and what will be the criteria by which members are selected? I’ve read what proposed legislation says, but I’ve been a part of the system awhile now and know that selected Native voices are not necessarily the voices we need heard, rather, they are the acceptable Native voices that disrupt the status quo the least. We can follow state and federal law, construct our task forces, and do everything written into the law but miss the point entirely. Again, law is a byproduct of ethics. However, we well know what is legal is not always ethical. Is it ethical to develop policy that eliminates the voices of those critical of past efforts and ignores the vast differences across the nation regarding the underlying root causes of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People depending upon where the crimes are occurring? Is it ethical to assume these laws will change anything without changing the ways people work in relationship with one another in localized contexts? If law alone worked, this issue would not exist. Additional laws are not the solution.
If people followed law this would be a different conversation. Legislators can write all the laws they want about Missing and Murdered Indigenous People and say something is better than nothing. This is not inaccurate, however establishing a law does not mean people are going to follow them. What matters is the will of the people to make it happen. What are we going to do to make sure that it happens? Because knowingly or unknowingly, we all contribute. You do not have to be a bad person and you do not have to buy into the system. How you walk in the world says a lot about you. How you think about and treat Native people when they discuss the lingering effects of colonization says a lot about you. How you treat homeless people say a lot about you. How you engage with this blog suggesting we display humility, patience, and establish increased collaboration says a lot about you.
I wanted to close with a how-to list for how to figure all of this out but I won’t even try. First of all, I don’t have one. None of us have one. We are all figuring this out as we go. What I will say, is that stories matter. Policymakers and law enforcement has to be listening to Indian Country and Indian Country has to be listening to law enforcement. But we also need to be thinking about non-Native communities where Indigenous people live. We have so many Native people represented in non-Native communities being ignored completely. We also need to think about working with our non-Native allies who are doing the same work and listening to their stories because they have a lot to offer. But not at the expense of Native people. We cannot discount what it means to be a Native person in need of help. We cannot discount what it means to be a Native person living in a community with so much need but not knowing where to begin or what to do.
In terms of strategies, I would highly encourage everyone, the next time anyone says we are being aggressive, to remind people that the 1928 Merriam Report does not look much different than the most recently released National Indian Education Study in 2019. We are still waiting to realize the self-determination goals embedded in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the Indian Self-Determination in Education Act of 1976. Every 638 contract is bound up in contract law prioritizing the federal government’s guidelines and goals above those of tribes in order for tribes to successfully remain in compliance. Very little, if anything, has been timely. And previous legislative strategies have rarely been effective. Self-interest and election cycles should not override intentional legislation that meets immediate community need. We have to think about strategies differently. We have to think about time differently and we have to think about language differently. We have to think about how to better work with law enforcement and co-construct definitions. A missing person, in its simplest form, is a person whose “current location is unknown and they cannot be contacted”. Native communities might not define it that way. So how do we communicate that into our communities and make sure everyone is on the same page? Or that the Yellowstone County Task Force is on the same page as the Northern Cheyenne Task Force as the Crow Task Force, as the Ft. Belknap Task Force and so forth? How are we making sure this is happening? We have to talk to each other.
In terms of statistics, find somebody who actually knows how to collect, analyze, and report valid, reliable data tribes can use to develop working solutions. Figure out a way to collaborate across tribes and talk with law enforcement about what data they need to solve crimes. There is so much that could be said about data sovereignty at this point, however misunderstanding arises here, too. Data sovereignty does not mean tribes should unilaterally not share information outside the tribe. There are sophisticated human research protection protocols and tribal governance mechanisms in place to serve tribal needs. Tribal nations have sovereign status, individual people do not. Individual people have the ability to participate – or not – in research or data collection associated with the social sciences. Data sovereignty is using your sovereign status – operationalizing self-determination – to determine what data your tribe collects and what data your tribe shares. You might collect 50 data points. Federal government, state government, county government, whomever it is that is helping you create your database and find missing people, might need 10 of those data points. You do not need to share all 50. You might use 40 of those to develop culturally-based community interventions. Think about data sovereignty in terms of tribes making decisions about what data is collected and how it is used. Because quite frankly, how many law enforcement agencies are completely removed from all state or federal government entanglement and have the jurisdictional authority to unilaterally investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate both Native and non-Native people who commit major crimes in Indian Country? Refusing to share all data will make it very difficult to solve these problems if we just dig in our heels and say we do not share information with law enforcement because they are a colonial government enterprise.
I do not have have any reason to believe all stakeholders working to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous People as a social or policy issue will agree with me. Nor would I want everyone to agree with me because I think we all need to have our own perspectives we bring to the conversation. However, we do need to talk about these things; particularly the more uncomfortable topics.
Adam Gopnik wrote, “Compromise is not a sign of the collapse of one’s moral conscience. It is a sign of its strength, for there is nothing more necessary to a moral conscience than the recognition that other people have one, too. A compromise is a knot tied tight between competing decencies.” We likely agree there are no simple answers that will correct past injustices. There does not exist any streamlined way to heal relationships between federal and state governments, law enforcement, tribal communities, urban Indigenous people, and the myriad grassroots organizations and activists who often feel at odds with one another at every turn. There is no legislation, no task force, no reconciliation or prevention effort that will effectively address the nuances of this issue as long as those seeking solutions remain rooted in their own areas of expertise or self-interest. There is no way to reconcile the self-interest of those now engaging with the issue due to the political advantage it presents (or potential political consequences if ignored) with the selfless interest of grieving communities seeking healing. I do not know if I would call all stakeholder’s perspectives “competing decencies” in this case, but I do know we need all stakeholders in order to be successful.
We need people willing to get out there and do the work. You have to get out there. Listen to one another’s stories and be willing to go through the challenges that come with working with others who are not like you. There are so many people on social media who complain or hold strong opinions; those who are quick to attack but never show up when it matters. Those people are also barriers to our success. As Brené Brown reminds us, “if you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” Those of you getting you ass kicked every day; we see you.