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Empathy for missing and murdered Indigenous women

The case of Alaska
Lucie Bonnet
Traduction de Yarri Kamara
Cet article est une traduction de :
Quelle empathie pour les femmes autochtones disparues ou tuées ? [fr]


In Alaska, Native women are victims of violence at far higher rates than women of other ethnicities. This phenomenon, known as #MMIWG (for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls), affects North America as a whole, but Alaska seems particularly hard hit. How can this be explained? We need to look at Alaska’s history: its late colonization, the specific status of Alaska Natives, financial and demographic issues raised by the oil and gas sector, police resources, and so on. However, the phenomenon is not limited to Alaska and is in effect a consequence of North American colonial policies, themselves disseminated through the arts, especially literature. Thus, representations of Native women in North American literature are key to understanding how they are perceived by society, even today.

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1The disappearance in September 2021 of Gabby Petito, a white American woman and social media star, deeply moved American, and even international, audiences and media. The first days after Petito went missing there was a flurry of newspaper articles and social media posts to help find her and her companion, who was at the time suspected of having kidnapped and murdered her. Some social media users even became amateur “detectives” leading investigations from their homes in the hope of finding the young woman, creating accounts dedicated to the case, especially on Twitter.

2My intention here is not to question the goodwill and emotion aroused by Gabby Petito’s disappearance. However, it seems important to underscore how this affair highlighted the unequal treatment of missing persons’ cases, both in the conventional media and on social media. When a non-white woman goes missing, does it arouse the same amount of empathy as when a white woman goes missing?

3Cases of missing Native women and girls in the United States and Canada are on the rise, and yet the media coverage of these affairs seems lower than that of other cases. This is notable in the very place where Gabby Petito went missing: dozens of Native women there have also gone missing and are still being sought. Thus, the current context, and in particular, the disappearance of Gabby Petito invites us to interrogate the media coverage of and public reaction to the disappearance of Native women, as well as the lack of empathy of American public opinion that such media coverage seems to suggest. This paper will focus on a specific territory—Alaska, one of the most dangerous states for Native women.

4Lastly, it is important to point out that as a white European, and not American, researcher, my position in this paper stands doubly external to the issue. The choice was thus made to work mainly from documents (articles, thesis, books, etc.) written by Native women whenever possible, and to identify authors by their tribal affiliation (in brackets, after their name) as is the custom in North America.

#MMIWG and Alaskan specificities

5The term, which has become an acronym hashtag, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) was coined in response to what public authorities and North American Native communities call an “epidemic” of disappearances and murders of Native women in the United States and Canada. In Canada the issue receives regular media coverage, especially since a national inquiry was set up in 2015 (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, NIMMIWG), but in the United States the topic has remained taboo until very recently.

6And yet, the United States is confronted with the same problems as Canada, as demonstrated in a study by Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) and Annita Lucchesi (Cheyenne). Their report focused on missing Native women and girls in urban areas, which are generally underrepresented in these kinds of investigations, due to the stereotypes that associate Native North Americans with reserves and rural areas. Their investigation covered 71 towns in 29 states. Five hundred and six cases were identified, a number that the researchers considered an underestimation of the true number. Seven of the 71 towns were situated in Alaska: Utqiagvik, Bethel, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan. Anchorage is the town with the third highest number of cases identified (out of the 71 towns), and Alaska is the state with the fourth highest number of cases. These statistics, however, have to be nuanced as, of the 72 local and state police agencies contacted only 40 responded and shared full or partial data with the research team. Megan Mallonee, for her part, noted that according to the National Crime Information Center Database, 5600 Native women were reported missing in the United States in 2017 (Mallonee, 2021, p. 94).

7There are multiple reasons behind the disparity in these figures. Firstly, underestimation results from a lack of reporting missing persons to police services for various reasons (lack of faith, not understanding the judiciary system, etc.). Various studies have also pointed out that police services sometimes refuse to register missing person reports. Moreover, when bodies are found, victims are sometimes erroneously identified as white or Hispanic, and when the victim is correctly identified as Native, rarely is the tribe indicated, and communities are thus not informed about incidents affecting their members.

8Nonetheless, even these partial results help illuminate a national problem that manifests more acutely in Alaska. As Megan Mallonee explains: “Alaska ranked first in the country for the number of women murdered by men in 2017, and more than forty percent of those victims were Alaska Native women […]” (2021, p. 95). This assessment is corroborated by the Indian Law and Order Commission, which noted that in 2015 insecurity among tribal communities was worse in Alaska, and systematically so (Mallonee, 2021, p. 105).

9What explains this state of affairs? Firstly, from a geographical standpoint, Alaska is by far the biggest state in the United States, and it is mostly rural. Furthermore, 229 of the 574 Native tribes recognised by the federal government are found in Alaska. Those tribal communities, for the most part, are situated in extremely remote areas, accessible only by boat or plane, and have only a limited or even no local police presence. They depend on the Alaska State Troopers, a state police force, who are most often posted hundreds of kilometres away from the communities in question. A study by ProPublica and Anchorage Daily News (cited in Mallonee, 2021, p. 106) points out these shortcomings, whose consequences play out most acutely on women. One community out of three in Alaska does not have any police presence; and most such communities are Native communities. There are additional circumstances aggravating the situation: for instance, the fact that some mandated police officers have criminal records. For example, in 2019, seven Native police officers in Stebbins village had pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges prior to being recruited.

10Moreover, from a legal standpoint, the Alaskan situation is also more complex than it is in other Native American communities. There are two main reasons for this: the Public Law 280 (PL 280) and the special status of Native people in Alaska.

11Public Law 280 is a federal law dating from 1953 which gives certain states the jurisdiction to intervene in Indian Territory. The law was immediately applied in six states from 1953: California, Minnesota (with the exception of the Red Lake Nation), Nebraska, Oregon (the Warm Springs Reserve excluded), Wisconsin (the Menominee Reserve excluded), and Alaska. If states acquired a new jurisdiction, no additional funding was available to them to cover the costs of additional police and judiciary services.

  • 1 There are three main levels of jurisdiction in the United States: the federal level, which handles (...)

12In addition, Natives in Alaska hold a special status distinct from other Native communities in the United States. Indeed, while the term Native Americans is used for Natives from the 48 continental states, the term Alaska Natives is used to refer to Natives from Alaska. This differentiation is a legacy of Alaska’s late entry into the Union, in 1959. Because of this late entry, with the exception of the Metlakatla reserve, Alaska Native communities have neither reserves nor geographical territories specifically designated for them over which they can exercise their own jurisdiction, that is, apply their own laws. As a result, jurisdiction is based on tribal citizenship rather than geography for Alaska Natives. This adds yet another layer to an already problematic overlap with federal and federated1 jurisdictions, and complicates the protection of members of the Nation, including women.

13In an attempt to respond to the problems raised by Alaska’s unique situation, the federal government and its Attorney General (equivalent to a minister of justice in other countries), William Barr, in 2019 declared an emergency for public safety in Native Alaskan communities and allocated funds specifically for the issue (Mallonee, 2021, p. 114).

Representing the Native other

14To understand the way in which the media and public opinion describe what happens to missing and murdered Native women, is to understand the influence that historical and literary representations have on our perception of reality. To do this, this paper will adopt an intersectional perspective and attempt to understand representations within two hierarchies. From a gender perspective, Native women live within extremely patriarchal North American societies, even if, at the micro level, Amerindian nations are more egalitarian (varying between matrilocal, matrifocal and matrilinear structures) (Mankiller, 2004, p. xviii). Moreover, in colonial societies, women from the First Nations, the ancestral inhabitants of American territories, are women who have been racialised, whom colonial societies relentlessly sought to render invisible. We can thus already identify two levels of inferiorisation of Native women by dominant society, that is the United States society, and in particular in relation to white cisgender men. Moreover, Natives in the United States represent a double minority: they are both an ethnic minority and a political minority, given that Native tribes are sovereign nations. Native tribes are therefore situated on the margins of the dominant colonial society and represent the main force of resistance to this society. Finally, as noted by Hossein Dabiri (2012): “There is no beginning and no end to the link between colonial violence and gender violence” (p. 393). Colonial violence and gender violence here are joined by a shared goal: the erasure of Native women from the American national body.

15Negative representations of Native women in the media are not a new phenomenon. They draw on literary works, such as early accounts by colonisers. In such narratives, men, for the large part, recount their encounters with peoples until then unknown to them, using the tools they had at their disposal—their knowledge, beliefs and cultures—to analyse these experiences. We can characterise those European cultures as hyperviolent, a consequence in particular of the almost constant presence of epidemics and diseases, as well as repeated wars. Death and violence were part of the daily life of these men, who moreover lived in patriarchal societies. During the encounters and in the accounts, the concern was not just to confront oneself to the Other with one’s beliefs and culture, but also to affirm oneself as a man, with everything that that implied, and to compare structures that were often more egalitarian with European Christian, gendered and hierarchised societies.

16From the first appearance of North American Natives in writings, they were viewed through the prism of European beliefs that prevailed at the time, a prism which rejected the humanity and culture of Native Americans and assimilated them, at the best, to mythological representations, such as Adam and Eve, or at the worst to animals (Fanon, 2015, p. 73). The goal of the process of articulating the experience of encounter was not to describe, but rather to express power. European debates about the very nature of these Natives (the 1550 Valladolid Conference, which later became known as the Valladolid Debate) attest to this. Thus Columbus, after his first encounter with the Tainos people in San Salvador, wrote to the queen and king of Spain: “So tractable, so peaceable, are these people, that […] there is not in the world a better nation. […] [They should] be made to work, sow and do all that is necessary and to adopt our ways” (cited in Brown, 1991, p. 1-2). We can see here, from this opening moment, what the colonization of the Americas was to become: ambivalent in how the indigenous inhabitants were perceived. Elian Djaoui (2009) explains such ambivalence by the fact that beyond just people, cultures were interacting with one another, and these intercultural encounters provoked a re-examination of the culture of those involved, and a mixture of fascination and disgust, which can eventually lead to violence (p. 135-136).

17According to David Smits (1982) explains, the origins of the image of the squaw, a woman of supposedly unbridled and perverse sexuality, are to be found in the seventeenth-century accounts of Englishmen from the Virginia colony (p. 281). To that image was later added the image of the Indian princess, creating a dichotomy of Native femininity, which as Devon Mihesuah (Choctaw) (1982) notes, deprives Native women of all agency: “The stereotypes non-Natives hold of Native women [are] either the ‘squaw drudge’ or the ‘princess’—neither possessing leadership abilities […]” (p. 119). This dichotomy at the time had parallels with the virgin/whore dichotomy imposed on European women.

18Denise Lajimodière (Anishinaabe) (2011) proposes another common representation: “The Native American woman has been depicted as a heavyset workhorse, dragging a travois, trudging along a trail behind her swarthy warrior husband, who is riding a horse and swapping hunting stories with friends. She is usually portrayed as a victim, a convenient object to avenge or ridicule” (p. 60). One can note here that, in line with Mihesuah’s analysis, the Indian woman in this representation is not perceived as an individual, but rather serves as an alibi for the coloniser to carry out their mission: if she is a burden for her community, then she must be got rid of to make place for “civilisation”; if she is mistreated by her husband, and more generally by her people, then she must be rescued and helped to join this so-called civilisation and attain happiness, or at least, a more Christian life. The result, at the end, is the same: the destruction of Natives and of their traditional way of life.

19The difference between the two representations is that the first to a certain extent authorises the colonizer to have sexual relations with Native women, as they are considered worthy of interest thanks to their supposed affiliation with a form of royalty.

  • 2 The doctrine of Manifest Destiny emerged in the nineteenth century and postulated that the American (...)

20Such stereotypical portrayals of Native women still persist today, with North American colonial policy reflected in literature and cinema. In her doctoral thesis, Iskwekwak—Kah’ Ki Yaw Ni Wahkomakanak: Neither Indian Princesses nor Squaw Drudges, Janice Acoose (Anishinaabekwe-Métis-Nehiowé) (1992) analysed portrayals of Native women in Canadian literature. She notes that the same dichotomy is still to be found, and she links this to intercultural relations between Native Americans and Euro-Americans. For Janice Acoose (1995), these portrayals perpetuate stereotypes about the Native woman and have repercussions both in interpersonal relations and in public policy (p. 39). More recently, Aurélie Journée-Duez, also in a doctoral thesis, titled Artistes femmes, queer et autochtones face à leur(s) image(s) [Female, Queer and Native Artists faced with their image(s)] (2020) offers a similar hypothesis: “The stereotypes projected by various forms of media (television, cinema, written press and literature) feed into an image of the Native woman as available, ready to be bought and at the disposal of men” (p. 187). These portrayals of Native women are analysed as instruments of the colonial act, serving an ideology that can be linked to that of the vanishing race: the Native was presented as destined to vanish, thus excusing otherwise condemnable behaviours, that is the aggression and/or murder of Native women. Thus, “[s]tereotypic images also function as sentinels that guard and protect the white eurocanadian-christian-patriarchy […] against threatening disturbances that might upset the status quo” (Acoose, 1995, p. 55). Such contextualisation enables a better understanding of why the disappearances of Native women resonate so little with the North American public: as these women have long been considered as destined to vanish, when they go missing it seems like the “natural continuation” of a history that started in the early years of North American colonization, a colonization that itself was considered natural through the doctrines of Manifest Destiny and Terra Nullius.2

Derealising the Native woman

21To this is to be added the fact that some readers prefer to not differentiate between fiction and reality (Acoose, 1995, p. 85-86) and build their image of Native women from portrayals in works of art. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o explains, “[literature is a] subtle weapon because [it] works through influencing emotions, the imagination, the consciousness of people” (cited in Acoose, 1992, p. 32) all while forging deep-seated representations, which as Janice Acoose (1995) points out, put to question the neutrality of (both male and female) North American professional journalists in the portrayals they offer of Native women (p. 87). Native women are locked into stereotypes which make them vulnerable to violence, and which also justify such violence in colonial society. The 1999 Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba established the same link. The report in effect noted that such representations dehumanised Native women, by turning them into sexual objects (Acoose, 1995, p. 74).

22The stereotypical portrayals are part of what Judith Butler calls the “derealisation” of the Other; the Other becomes an unreal, spectral presence, invisible but nonetheless present in an almost mythical form (cited in Byrd, 2011, p. xviii). While Butler theorised about derealisation in a post-September-11 context, Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Geonpul) perceives signs of derealisation already in the colonization of the Americas. Thus, “[the white man] realised that he could literally empty the ‘Other’ of their content and inscribe, in this empty space, his own truth, in the form of an image or a silhouette” (Mbembe, 2019, p. 379).

23From the nineteenth century, physical anthropology proposed racial and sexual stereotypes which fed this process of rewriting. Thus, diverse dichotomies opposing Natives and Europeans emerged: culture/nature; human/animal, human/monster; Christian/idol worshipper. Colonised women, in particular, were subjected to an eroticised gaze, and the dichotomy “squaw-princess” locked them up in a sexuality that was either innocent or depraved. The importance of the body in the colonial process thus becomes clearly visible: it is the site where relations of power, sex, gender and race are inscribed.

24Judith Butler (2010) explains that our capacity to apprehend a life (that is, to consider someone’s life as having value) “is partially dependent on that life being produced according to norms that qualify it as a life or, indeed, as a part of life” (p. 9). Yet, for close to six centuries the colonial machine has represented the lives of Natives as un- or under-developed, if not outright savage, and not a part of the American nation’s march towards progress. Native Americans have been portrayed as the Other par excellence, those against whom the Nation must present a common front: they are that Other that unites the people. To add to this, Native Americans have also been described as the main obstacle in America’s westward expansion (for example, through their attacks on convoys of settlers which are said to have caused thousands of deaths). For Butler, when a people threatens lives, it is dehumanised by those lives, appearing thereafter as nothing but a danger to them (p. 46).

25Thus, violence against Native women is not only part of the legacy of colonial violence, but also of colonial thinking. As Frantz Fanon (1999) explains:

The settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil. The native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values. He is, let us dare to admit, the enemy of values, and in this sense, he is the absolute evil. (p. 72)

For the settlers, the colonised came to represent absolute evil not just because they did not follow the values that were deemed respectable (and which were the foundations of Western society), but above all because they represented opposition to those values.

26The origins of this derealisation are to be sought in the early days of the exploration of North America. In effect, as Robert Berkhofer points out, Native Americans do not have a specific term to refer to themselves as ancestral inhabitants of North America. The substantive “Indian” is a European invention, taken, as we know, from Christopher Columbus’ mistake when he thought he had arrived in India (he used the Spanish term Indios). The term remained in use well after the colonization of the continent, even if the English preferred to use the term “savage” until the seventeenth century, and the French the term “sauvage” until the nineteenth century. The fact is that, until the late sixteenth century, the large majority of sources on North American Natives are Spanish, and use the word “Indian.” This European invention created a stereotyped image of “the Indian.”

27The derealisation of the native Other was present right from the beginnings of colonization. In fact, when Europeans arrived in North America, they experienced a profound shock to their world construct and their beliefs. The world which they had believed to be tripartite as suggested by Saint Augustin, was revealed to be much vaster. It was necessary to define the new peoples encountered, all while also redefining themselves. We witness across time a turn away from the term “Christendom” towards “Europe” to describe the Old Continent (Berkhofer, 2004, p. 23). As Frantz Fanon (2015) points out in Black Skin, White Masks: “Every colonized people [...] finds itself face to face with language of the civilizing nation, that is the metropolitan culture” (p. 14).

28The Anishinaabe writer, Ali Nahdee has devised a test similar to Alison Bechdel’s test,3 the “Aila test,” which analyses Native women characters in works of art through a feminist and decolonial lens. Like the Bechdel test, Nahdee’s test has three criteria: the main character is a Native woman, who does not fall in love with a white man and who is not raped or murdered. Since March 2017, Nahdee has reviewed a range of works from different mediums (films, video games, etc.) on her Tumblr account.4 She explains her process as follows: “Indigenous children, especially Indigenous girls, deserve to see themselves depicted in mainstream media without feeling shame or trauma” (Vassar, 2020).

Conclusion: has social media changed things?

29To return to the Gabby Petito case and the online engagement it elicited, in particular on Twitter and TikTok, it should be noted that the young woman’s family very quickly raised attention about other women, and notably Native women, who had gone missing in the same geographic region. In addition, many Native activists pointed out the difference in how the Petito case was treated compared to cases of missing Native women. We are also witnessing the emergence of a new form of activism on social media platforms with, for example, the use of the hashtags #nomorestolensisters and #MMIWG, which have been shared millions of times. This has offered new visibility to cases of missing Native women, visibility that they never enjoyed in conventional media, and which the Petito case highlighted. The focus on social media avenues is in line with the new forms of citizen engagement of the twenty-first century. As Pascal Lupien (2020) notes: “[This citizen engagement] is increasingly concentrated on new media and communications technologies.”

30Social networks allow for the development of new rhetoric, and facilitate conversation between Natives and non-Natives, a conversation in which Natives are the main protagonists, something that is relatively new. We thus see the emergence of several Native American accounts, notably on TikTok, aimed at giving greater visibility to Native cultures and changing the vision that the Western world has of Native societies, so as to fight against the Western image of a culture that is going extinct. Social media represents a new space that facilitates awareness raising about the social problems afflicting Native communities (Bhroin, 2015, p. 91).

31However, this new form of activism is showing its limits. Firstly, while Native social media activism was widespread prior to the Petito case, it only grabbed the attention of the conventional media when that case, and more particularly the Petito family, highlighted the plight of other missing and murdered women. The impact of these new zones of expression on society as a whole therefore needs to be questioned. It seems clear that dominant society remains largely impervious to such activism. Nevertheless, given that the target audience of social networks, notably TikTok, are the younger generations (more than 60 percent of TikTok users in the world are under 24 years of age)5 who have taken distance from conventional media, there are reasons to remain optimistic about the reach of social media activism.

32Lastly, it should be highlighted that social media does not represent a magical parenthesis from colonial society for Natives; the latter are also victims of racism and other forms of violence on social media at higher rates than other users, and this encourages the emergence or re-emergence of trauma linked to colonization (Carlson & Frazer, 2020).

33While the visibility of missing or murdered cases involving Native women is on the rise, thanks notably to new players, whether male or female, and to new technologies, this positive development needs to be bolstered by decisive action from the federal and federated levels for true improvement. By nominating Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Joe Biden seems set on finally addressing the emergency. That is, in any case, how Secretary Haaland framed it herself: “A lack of urgency, transparency, and coordination has hampered our country’s efforts to combat violence against American Indian and Alaska Native people. […] [T]he Interior Department is marshalling our resources to finally address the crisis […].” In 2019, the Biden administration signed the “Not Invisible” Act as part of its response. Through the act, a commission was created to improve cross-state cooperation and increase funding available for finding missing Native women.

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1 There are three main levels of jurisdiction in the United States: the federal level, which handles federal offenses; the federated level, with each one of the fifty states having its own jurisdiction, police forces and justice system; and the tribal level.

2 The doctrine of Manifest Destiny emerged in the nineteenth century and postulated that the American people and institutions had exceptional virtues and thus were legitimized in their westward expansion. Terra Nullius erased pre-Colombian indigenous presence to justify the legality of the conquest of the Americas.

3 The Bechdel Test, devised by the graphic novelist, Alison Bechdel, aims at highlighting the under-representation of women characters in film. To pass the test, a film must fulfil three criteria: 1. Have at least two female characters identified by name; 2. Who speak to each other; 3. About a subject other than men.

4 See:

5 See Digimind’ blog.

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Lucie Bonnet, « Empathy for missing and murdered Indigenous women »Hybrid [En ligne], 11 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2024, consulté le 20 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Lucie Bonnet

Lucie Bonnet is a PhD student at University Jean-Monnet-Saint-Étienne and a professeur agrégée of English. Her research focuses on the intersection between domestic violence in Alaska Native communities and self-determination. She is currently a lecturer at the Institut d’études européennes [Institute of European Studies], University Paris 8, where she teaches courses in British and American history.

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