GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — For indigenous people, murder and sexual violence isn’t just a concern; it’s a pervasive epidemic that’s plagued the American Indian and Alaskan Native population for decades.
More than four in five American Indian and Alaskan Native women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime — women in that group are ten times more likely to be murdered than women of any other ethnicity in the U.S.
Considering the numbers, the statistics are even more staggering.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, people of American Indian descent and Alaskan Natives make up only 2.9% of the American population.
Around 3.7 million people identified as American Indian and Alaskan Native alone, and 5.9 million people reported being one of those races in combination with another.
Only 14 U.S. states claim 100,000 or more residents who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native.
On Thursday, a handful of local tribes gathered at Ah-Nab-Awen Park in downtown Grand Rapids to remember the victims, spread the statistics, and march up and down the streets of the city.
“These are terrifying statistics,” said Melissa Pope, a chief judge in the Nottawaseppi-Huron Band of the Potawatomi Tribal Court. “Every day that goes by, people need to understand that we are losing indigenous people, every day.”
Pope has been working tirelessly for years to highlight the problem and the horrific data behind it. But a persistent roadblock has been tribal jurisdiction. While each tribe is its own sovereign nation, the strength of tribal courts has been diminished over decades, and lack of jurisdiction has made cases incredibly difficult to prosecute. Cases like Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe have severely diminished the abilities of tribal courts and tribal police forces to investigate and prosecute violent crimes committed on their land, and to their people.
“That made reservations, in my opinion, kind of open season,” said Pope. “Non-natives know that if they commit crimes on tribal reservations, that there is an issue with jurisdiction, even if they don’t know all the details. I always say that the laws have turned offenders into predators because they know they can do it and get away with it.”
It’s not just an issue of murder, either. Sex-trafficking levels in the American Indian community are shockingly high, especially in border states like Michigan and border states to the south. Pope says 40% of women sex trafficked in the United States are of American Indian descent, and many cases go unprosecuted and unsolved.
“That is shocking; that is horrendous,” she said. “And within those, mind you, we are also taking about boys and girls; we’re talking children.”
Pope, who has lost people in her own life to murder, says for American Indian people who are LGBTQ+, or two-spirit — native people who identify as having both a masculine and feminine spirit — the missing, murdered, and trafficking statistics are even higher.
In many cases, charging and investigative decisions on cases go to the Department of Justice.
“And unfortunately, they do not file charges enough,” said Pope. “There is case after case after case of offenders going unpunished, of insufficient investigations.”
Forty-two-year-old Elaine Silva was murdered in September of 2021 — her body was found washed up on a shore on Old Mission Peninsula Beach in Traverse City. A seven-month investigation by the FBI determined that isn’t where Silva died, but all the same, her investigation was closed as undetermined.
Her family was among the large group of demonstrators at the rally on Thursday.
“It feels like nobody cares, and that’s not okay,” said Silva’s cousin Wendy Dyer. “There needs to be awareness and there needs to be resolution, and not just undetermined. It’s not good enough.
“We’re important too and our culture is important,” she continued. “She has a story, and her story should be told and her story needs an ending.”
“It’s time to make some noise,” said Jennifer Fransler, another of Silva’s cousins. “It’s time to make some noise and rattle some cages … that this is unacceptable.”
For additional help and information, Pope recommends the following resources:
National Congress of American Indians
National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center