Violence doesn’t come out of nowhere. Often, it’s a byproduct of historical shifts and social trends—each bloody act taking root in the ruptures that came before it.
That’s the message activist and researcher Moroni Benally delivered Monday in a sobering presentation about the epidemic sweeping across North America of missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.
On reservations and in urban areas across the country, studies show that Native American and Alaska Native women and non-binary people have experienced shockingly high rates of homicide and violence. A 2016 report funded by the National Institute of Justice found that four out of five of women from tribal nations across the country suffered at some point in their lives from sexual assault, physical abuse from a partner, stalking and other traumatizing crimes. That same year, the National Crime Information Center logged a staggering 5,712 cases of missing indigenous women.
These alarming trends have formed the basis of a nationwide movement, and Benally—who on Wednesday kicks off his campaign for the District 2 seat on the Salt Lake City Council—has been part of efforts to find solutions in Utah. He currently serves as the coordinator of advocacy and public policy at the Sandy-based nonprofit Restoring Ancestral Winds. Over the past year he and RAW’s executive director, Yolanda Francisco-Nez, have been meeting with law enforcement authorities across the state with hopes that they will better track and address the problem.
In the Tessman Auditorium at the Main Library, he argued that today’s crimes connect directly to age-old systems of American colonial oppression.
On a PowerPoint screen, he pulled up four maps of the United States, showing the lands that Native Americans presided over from 1850, 1865, 1880 and 1990. They showed how tribal nations once enjoyed self-governance across vast swathes of the West, but over time their territory dwindled to a handful of tiny specks as they were forcibly displaced by U.S. lawmakers and armed forces.
This widespread dispossession laid the groundwork for future instability, Benally said. To explain just how badly this scarred indigenous cultures, he invoked the Navajo word for Earth, nahasdzáán, which he said translates to mean “the woman who is my mother.”
“You’re being disconnected from your homeland. It hurts your soul,” he told the audience, which included Salt Lake City Police Department Chief Mike Brown.
Benally later pointed out that indigenous communities suffered even further with the emergence of Indian boarding schools in the 1880s. Taken away from their homes, indigenous kids were stripped of their language, culture and traditional clothing, erasing their history and culture as they were forced to assimilate to a white way of life.
This process continued for decades, inflicting a “mass trauma” that reverberated through generations. Benally brought up his mother, who grew up in an environment where alcoholism was rampant and struggled to make sure her kids didn’t experience the same issues as they came of age.
Today, Benally said many Native American communities experience increased rates of suicide, domestic violence, sexual assault, substance abuse and other social problems.
“We’re looking at these conditions, and we wonder why many of our people turn to substance abuse to cope with their reality, and what that ends up leading them into—risky behaviors that allow them to be targeted,” he said.
But that isn’t the only problem. As activists have fought in recent years to raise awareness about missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, they’ve aimed to provide better documentation of the issue.
Benally said the epidemic continues today in part due to bureaucratic oversight and poor record-keeping by local and federal authorities, leading to crimes going miscategorized or unlogged. Tribal governments also face limitations because they’re not able to investigate or track crimes outside their jurisdiction, while the majority of indigenous peoples now live in urban areas.
When Benally finished his presentation, RAW’s Francisco-Nez said that law enforcement authorities could better address these crimes by improving their data collection and forming task forces specifically devoted to addressing crimes against indigenous women and two-spirits.
Speaking with City Weekly and other media after the event, Brown didn’t outline any concrete steps the police could be doing. But he said he’s been in multiple talks with Benally and Francisco-Nez and was open to possibly starting a task force dedicated to the issue.
“What’s next is more conversation, more dialogue,” Brown said.
To make a positive impact, Benally argued that it’s important to think about solving crimes as well as addressing policy issues. Also, one needs to think about longer legacies of injustice—to solve the problems of today, after all, often it means correcting the wrongs of the past.
“We have to think about the impact that history has had on native peoples to even begin to start thinking about what we can do about this crisis,” he said, adding later: “We have to think bigger.”