‘Bring them home’: The fight for missing and murdered Indigenous women


Four missing women found following MMIW coverage backlash

FILE – In this Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, file photo, Jeannie Hovland, the deputy assistant secretary for Native American Affairs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, poses with a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women mask, in Anchorage, Alaska, while attending the opening of a Lady Justice Task Force cold case office in Anchorage, which will investigate missing and murdered Indigenous women. From the nation’s capitol to Indigenous communities across the American Southwest, top government officials, family members and advocates are gathering Wednesday, May 5, 2021, as part of a call to action to address the ongoing problem of violence against Indigenous women and children. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The media frenzy surrounding Gabby Petito has exposed harsh disparities in how cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women are investigated and covered.

In Wyoming, more than 700 indigenous people went missing in the decade leading up to Petito’s disappearance, according to a report by the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force.

Backlash surrounding the inconsistencies in law enforcement efforts and media coverage quickly propelled the issue of Missing and Murdered and Indigenous Women (MMIW) into the spotlight.

“We feel very sorry for the Petito family and the media circus created around them,” Deborah Maytubee Shipman, Director of MMIWUSA explained. “They didn’t ask for this and I can’t begin to imagine what it does for their hearts to know that their daughter was treated differently.”

Shipman contributes a consistent lack of interest in pursuing cases of MMIW by the media, law enforcement, and the government as her reason for founding MMIWUSA.

MMIWUSA ‘Women at the Church’ Courtesy: MMIWUSA

The Portland-based organization began as a public Facebook page, which through awareness campaigns and search and rescue missions, quickly transformed into the largest community lead organization to locate missing Indigenous women around the nation.

Shipman told KOIN 6 News the recent onslaught of media attention surrounding MMIW cases has lead to four women being found in the last two weeks.

While thankful for the support, Shipman describes the attention as bittersweet stating, “The media comes back to you and says ‘oh look at this big difference!’ We did 26 interviews and I had to hold my tongue a lot last week, because she [Gabby Petito] did not propel herself.”

Since the issue was flung into the spotlight, MMIWUSA was forced to put out statements and turn down interviews due to exponentially high requests.

Shipman told KOIN 6 News she is encouraged by the interest in her organization but hopes the newfound momentum will continue to shed light on stories that have historically lingered in the shadows.

“Some years we have 15,000 native women go missing. We are 1.9% of the population and 25% of the murders,” Shipman stated. “They didn’t even count our murders until three years ago! There was not data on us at all.”

This year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon (USAO) just released its first annual MMIP program report with the first state-recorded data on missing and murdered indigenous people.

KOIN 6 News reached out to USAO for updated information on the most recent MMIP cases and was denied that information. According to data published in the February 2021 report, there were eight murdered and 11 missing Indigenous persons connected to Oregon.

“This work will break your heart 100 times a day,” Shipman cried. “We have mothers burring their children and entire generations of grandparents raising their grandkids because their mothers are missing. We shouldn’t have to endure this and these families should be treated just like other people.”

Shipman hopes the media and others will keep sharing the stories of missing indigenous women and encourage law enforcement to help bring them home.

Currently, MMIWUSA is searching for six missing women in the Oregon area. Shipman told KOIN 6 News donations, sharing flyers and information online, volunteering for search events, and promoting education on the issue of MMIW is the most effective way to support their mission and help bring these women home.

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