On July 4, 2013, Hanna Harris, then 21, went out to celebrate Independence Day with her friends in Lame Deer, Mont. When she hadn’t returned home the next day, her family reported her disappearance. But — because they felt local police hadn’t taken their concerns seriously — they also organized their own search party. Three days later, volunteers found Harris’s body: She had been murdered.
When they learned of Harris’s death, organizers at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), which is headquartered in Lame Deer, began working with her family and the state’s congressional delegation to raise awareness of the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
A citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Harris’s birthday had fallen on May 5. And so, in 2017, Montana Sens. Steve Daines (D) and Jon Tester (D) introduced a resolution designating May 5 as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. Last year, President Biden issued a proclamation formalizing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.
A year later, Harris’s mother, Malinda Harris Limberhand, will speak alongside other family advisers on a panel that the NIWRC is hosting as part of its week of action for missing and murdered Indigenous women. It’s just one of the many events held across the United States by Indigenous-led organizations to honor survivors and the families of the missing and murdered.
Although this is only the second year that May 5 has been nationally recognized, the movement to raise awareness and call for action has been decades in the making.
“It’s important not only to include families when a woman goes missing or is murdered, but there’s also this long journey of seeking justice and healing,” said Kerri Colfer (Tlingit), senior native affairs adviser at the NIWRC. “The importance of listening to survivors and their families really can’t be understated.”
Indigenous women and girls go missing or are murdered at disproportionately high rates in the United States. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, homicide is the third-leading cause of death among Native American women, and Native women face rates of violence up to 10 times higher than the national average. In 2016, the National Crime Information Center logged 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, but the Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database logged only 116 cases.
In Montana, where Harris disappeared, Native Americans make up only about 7 percent of the state’s population, but 26 percent of its missing persons cases. Combined, this crisis is often referred to as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, or MMIW, but many organizers are increasingly using the gender-neutral Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives to account for the experiences of men and the LGBTQ community.
Although the MMIW crisis has only recently gained national attention in the United States, it’s been going on for decades — as has the movement to recognize the crisis.
In the late 1980s, Mona Woodward and three of her close friends began demonstrating in Vancouver, B.C., to raise awareness about Indigenous women in their community who were going missing — including Woodward’s sister, Eleanor “Laney” Ewenin, who was found murdered in 1982. Together, they would stand in the Downtown Eastside neighborhood, holding signs covered in photographs of missing women.
On Feb. 14, 1992, shortly after another woman was found murdered, the organizers led the first march on behalf of missing and murdered Indigenous women. It’s continued each Valentine’s Day since.
Today, Mona Woodward’s niece, Agnes Woodward, remains active in the movement for missing and murdered Indigenous people. A member of the Plains Cree tribe from Kawacatoose First Nation, Agnes Woodward lives in North Dakota, where she is renowned for her ribbon skirts. She also directs the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Storytelling Project at Seeding Sovereignty.
“We’re grateful for the awareness. We’re grateful for all the things that are happening today,” Woodward said. “But this started 30 years ago. … And the conditions that cause the violence haven’t really changed.”
In 2020, Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act, which aim to help address the crisis, were signed into law. These steps, coupled with Biden’s proclamation last year, “felt like we were really moving in the right direction,” Woodward added — like “we were starting to move beyond just acknowledging that MMIW exists” and toward “actually seeking answers.”
As the U.S. government increasingly recognizes the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people, Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women and a member of the Laguna Pueblo, hopes politicians and policymakers center families’ experiences.
“All of the solutions to date have everything to do with gaps in communication or coordination” between government offices, she said. “But nobody’s talking about their families right now.”
This year, Native-led organizations across the United States are hosting events in recognition of May 5. In Montana, advocates will meet outside the Big Horn County Courthouse to demand justice for Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, an 18-year-old woman who was killed in 2019. In New Mexico, the families of Pepita Redhair, Ashley Nicole Collins and Ella Mae Begay will share their stories at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center while the state’s MMIW task force releases its response plan. And Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) will share a message virtually on the Interior Department’s website.
Woodward said that while attending those events is important, it’s also crucial to recognize how families might be feeling throughout the day.
For some families, “the grief is so heavy that they don’t participate in May 5th,” she said. “Bringing care to their doorstep can mean so much.”
She remembers feeling deeply moved when a neighbor left homemade cookies and freshly harvested vegetables on her front porch one year, she said. In that spirit, she and her colleagues at Seeding Sovereignty have been organizing to send 200 care packages to families across the United States and Canada in honor of the day.
Charley echoes Woodward’s recommendation to support individual families: She suggests specifically donating to families who’ve organized their own investigations into their loved ones’ disappearances through GoFundMe, Kickstarter or Venmo.
As she put it: “It’s critical that we elevate the campaigns that families have out there for themselves.”