Believe Indigenous victims of violence and get rid of mascots that dehumanize Native people, activists say

Members of Utah’s Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force say awareness is increasing, but violence is ongoing.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, spoke over Zoom on Wednesday about murdered and missing Indigenous women.

The crisis of murdered and missing Native women has been getting more attention in recent years, but activists say the violence has continued.

Members of Utah’s Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force met over Zoom on Wednesday to discuss what needs to be done to end violence against Indigenous people. May 5 is designated in the state as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and LGBT+ Awareness Day.

Native women are murdered at rates that are 10 times the national average in some parts of the country, according to a 2012 report from the United States Department of Justice. A 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute says Utah is in the top 10 states for cases of murdered and missing Indigenous girls and women.

Rep. Angela Romero sponsored the bill that created the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force last year. The group recommends social services systems and criminal justice responses to prevent and address crimes against Native women and girls.

Romero and Denae Shanidiin, of the anti-violence group Restoring Ancestral Winds, said more data is needed on human trafficking and murdered and missing women and girls in Utah. Shanidiin said it is important that there be Indigenous-led data collection about rates of violence.

“We are invisible without that data,” she said.

Romero said it is important to believe people who report violence because people often don’t report crimes out of fear of not being believed. Shanidiin said it also is critical to support the families of victims after violence has taken place.

Shanidiin said there need to be more hotlines and Amber Alerts aimed at protecting Indigenous people. She said tribes need more power to prosecute outsiders who perpetrate violence against Native people.

Currently, tribes are limited in their ability to punish people outside of the tribe who commit violence on their land. Romero said crimes against Native women and girls are often perpetrated by non-Native men.

MMIW+ of Utah Chair Michelle Brown said she wants to see more individuals held accountable for their crimes against Indigenous people. “It needs to be made very clear that these are lines we are no longer allowing you to cross,” she said.

Shanidiin said she thinks awareness of the crisis of violence is improving, but the violence continues. “People are going missing every day,” said Shanidiin. “This violence has only risen with COVID.”

She said violence against Native people is part of the legacy of genocide in the United States.

Another part of that legacy is “dehumanizing” mascots of Native people, said Brown. She said it is sad that communities want to “cling to ownership over Indigenous likeness and perpetuate myths about Native people.”

Beyond mascots, she said slurs against Native people should not be in public spaces. For example, there is a road near Provo Canyon called Squaw Road, which is a derogatory word for Native women.

“How can that exist, I ask myself?” said Brown.

A bill was passed this year to rename landmarks that are offensive to Native people, but Romero said the final version of it was “watered down.” Romero said she has colleagues in the Legislature that have said Indigenous people like the mascots. She said there needs to be more education about why the mascots are derogatory and upsetting.

Correction • May 6, 3:52 p.m.: A previous version of this story provided an incomplete name for the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force.