The Missing Case of Gabby Petito and the Cases of Missing Indigenous Women

Missing flyer of Gabby Petito depicting a picture of Gabby with the hashtag of America's daughter
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On September 11, Gabby Petito, a young white woman who was travelling in a van and recording videos about her life with her boyfriend, was reported missing by her family. Petito’s popularity on YouTube and Tik Tok helped the story circulate like wildfire with true crime podcasts , national news channels , and intense investigation from officials and the general public. The fervent public engagement and dedication of investigative officials lead to Petito’s remains being discovered in less than a month in Wyoming. Within the last nine years 710 indigenous people, mainly women, have disappeared in the same area where Petito was found, and most cases have remained unresolved. Where was their national media coverage? Currently, 64,000 Black women are declared missing within America, but where is their media attention and public outcry? The case of Gabby Petito is an unfortunate situation and deserves to have the proper investigative force behind it. However, we must ask ourselves why cases like Petito’s, usually young white women gain the most awareness, while women of color, like indigenous women are often ignored on a local and national level. The power of the media and public opinion is significant. The interest of the public has been able to reopen cases and even apprehend criminals. Public outcry has secured justice for victims and their families,  which is recognition and treatment that indigenous women often lack.

Indigenous women with red hand painted over the mouth, presenting the voiceless and missing indigenous women
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The Mary Johnson Case 

On November 25, 2020 Mary Johnson, an indigenous woman of the Tulalip Tribe, went missing while walking to a friend’s house in Washington state. Over the span of 10 months, the search for Johnson involved a billboard on the interstate and local media coverage, which resulted in little development towards finding or arresting the perpetrator behind her disappearance. Local tribal police efforts have not recovered Mary Johnson’s body and have not made any arrests, despite having identified multiple people of interest.  

Why has such little investigative action occurred over such a long period of time? Abigail Echo-Hawk, chief research officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board, states that investigation by law enforcement is often delayed due to the “maze of jurisdiction” in the local county. The boundaries among the authorities overseeing the case must be distinguished between the federal government, state government, and the tribal police, this process is often complicated by the complex procedures of bureaucracy. Additionally, tribal authorities often lack jurisdiction or are limited in their ability to prosecute non-Native people for crimes committed on tribal land. The federal government, which carries the authority of persecution, often does not offer its services. The competence and empathy that Mary Johnson and her family deserve was undercut by governmental and legislative administrations who focused on avoiding responsibility rather than seeking justice, for Mary Johnson. Cases such as Mary Johnson continue to emulate the numerous, and neglected cases of missing indigenous women.  

Banner with the words "No more Stolen Sisters" at a protest for missing indigenous women
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The Disparities in Media Attention and Investigation 

The discrepancy in the media treatment and public awareness of missing white women compared to missing women of color, including indigenous women, is referred to as “missing white woman syndrome.” The Lucchesi Sovereign Bodies Institute reports that from 2000 to 2009 local and state media covered 18% of homicide cases related to indigenous women and 50% of homicide cases related to white victims. The reporting of cases between white and indigenous victims is even dependent on the status of the victim, whether they are dead or alive. The Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center reports that white people are more likely to have an article written about them while they are still alive. Approximately 76% of articles written about white victims are published while the victim is still alive, but 42% of articles written about indigenous victims are written after the indigenous victim is found dead. Indigenous people are more likely to have an article written on them if they were found dead with 57% of articles being on indigenous missing people, but no articles about white missing persons which displays that white missing persons receive media recognition in a timely manner, before the victim has been found dead. The underrepresentation of indigenous women within media is alarming considering how there have been 5,712 missing cases since 2016, .  

The lack of awareness and ignorance surrounding the numerous cases of missing  indigenous women is ironic considering how indigenous women are at higher risk for acts of violence and should receive more awareness and protections. In fact, American Indian and Alaskan Native women living on tribal lands are murdered at rates more than ten times the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Publicity around these cases is crucial because these cases are not simply cases of missing people, but also cases of domestic violence, homicide, sexual assault, and sex trafficking which are rampant issues within indigenous communities. Compared to their white counterparts, indigenous women are 1.7 times more likely to experience violence, and 2 times more likely to be raped. More than half of indigenous women have experienced sexual violence (56.1%) and have been physically abused by their partners (55.5%). These acts of violence intrinsically violate and disregard the human right for indigenous women to exist in peace and security. Systematically, the safety and protection of indigenous women is neglected and allowed to continuously occur without intervention from the United States government.  

Why is there a Gap?  

Indigenous women’s rights advocates argue that indigenous women are often blamed for their own disappearances, thus resulting in a lack of empathy and effort from officials, media, and the public. 

Echo-Hawk, Seattle Indian Health Board chief research officer states that, “They’re [indigenous women] assumed to have run away, have substance abuse issues, or done something that justified them going missing or being murdered.”

Due to such prejudice and bias from authorities, the crucial initial period of search for a missing person is often lost because of the dismissal of families’ concern and refusal of investigative officers to report an indigenous woman is missing. Echo-Hawks details the common scenario as victim blaming where authorities ask questions like, “Did she run away? Was she out drinking?” and then dismiss family member concerns by saying their loved one will likely just come home in a couple of days. 

Beyond the biases of local authorities, such victim blaming can manifest into negative character framing within media coverage further leading to poor incentive for authorities and the public to display concern and initiative in resolving cases and serving justice for missing indigenous women. The Governor’s Taskforce on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons reports that 16% of articles about indigenous people involves negative character framing, emphasizing negative aspects of the victim’s life, family, and community that are unrelated to the crime itself.   

founders and members of the Na’ah Illahee fund
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How can you help? 

The negligence of authorities and lack of media attention isolates Indigenous families in their search for their missing family member. 

A Seattle Native-led nonprofit Na’ah Illahee (NIF) launched the “Red Blanket Fund,” to provide support for families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. You can donate to Na’ah Illahee and other organizations like it. Additional organizations include, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA and  National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center 

The Keystone XL Pipeline and America’s History of Indigenous Suppression

A fake pipeline with the words "stop the xl pipeline" protesting the pipeline
Stop the XL Pipeline. Source: tarsandaction, Creative Commons.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline Project. The pipeline, which had severe environmental and human rights implications, has been on a long road towards failure. This pipeline was proposed in 2008 and has been referred to as either the Keystone XL pipeline or KXL. In 2015, the Obama administration vetoed the pipeline due to its potential threats to the climate, drinking water, public health, and ecosystems of the local communities. In 2017, the Trump administration reversed Obama’s veto, signing an executive order to advance the Keystone pipeline as well as a similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline despite the many valid arguments made against the two pipelines. President Trump also issued a cross-border permit to the pipeline developer, a permit that had been long sought after for the developers. Since the approval, the Trump administration has been sued twice by environmental organizations and lost each time.

The Keystone XL pipeline was proposed by the energy infrastructure company TC Energy. It was proposed to be an extension of the existing Keystone Pipeline System, which has been in operation since 2010. The goal was to transport 830,000 barrels of crude, tar sand oil to refineries on the American Gulf Coast each day. Tar sands lie beneath the northern Alberta boreal forest. They contain a form of petroleum called bitumen, a relatively sludgy substance that can be turned into fuel. Because of the highly corrosive and acidic nature of the tar sands oil, there contains a higher likelihood that the pipeline will leak. A study set between the years 2007 and 2010 found that pipelines carrying tar sands oil spilled three times more per mile than pipelines carrying conventional crude oil. The southern portion of the pipeline, from Oklahoma to Texas, has already been completed. This portion of the pipeline is called the Gulf Coast Pipeline. The climate impact of a complete and fully operational Keystone XL would be drastic. It would increase mining by accelerating the production and transportation of crude oil. It has also been determined that tar sands oil emits 17 percent more carbon than other forms of crude oil. In 2017, the US State Department released a study which proved that carbon emissions could be between 5 and 20 percent higher than the original 17 percent estimation. This means an extra 178.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas would be emitted annually, a similar impact to 38.5 million cars.

A few protestors with flags in front of the Washington Monument
Keystone XL protestors. Source: Victoria Pickering, Creative Commons.

President Biden’s executive order was a landmark achievement and a sigh of relief for indigenous and environmental activists alike. Indigenous leaders are encouraging him to go even further and cancel more controversial fossil fuel projects, such as the Dakota Access pipeline. Several indigenous leaders, including Dallas Goldtooth of the Mdewakanton Dakota and Dine nations and Faith Spotted Eagle of the Ihanktonwan Dakota nation, have seen Biden’s executive order as a sign of the administration keeping its campaign promise to work against climate change and work with indigenous communities. Many indigenous populations have fought for over a decade to defend their water and land rights against fossil fuel companies. Goldtooth called Biden’s decision a “vindication” of the hard work and struggle many indigenous communities have put forth in protest of the pipeline. Pipelines like the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines as well as other fossil fuel projects actively pollute native land and water resources as well as consistently contribute to global warming due to their high greenhouse gas emissions.

A similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline has received media attention in previous years due to the police and state reactions to the protests over its creation. This pipeline transports 470,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, over 1,172 miles. The pipeline continually threatens the sanctity of indigenous sacred lands and the purity and safety of the local water supply. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been one of the most vocal groups in working to oppose the creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline. There did occur a series of protests for many months, in opposition of the creation of the pipeline. The protests were primarily peaceful, with camps and prayer circles set up on the land where construction was to take place. However, despite youth and elderly leaders being in the front during the inevitable standoffs with police, Mace, tasers, and rubber bullets were used against the protestors.

A group of young protestors holding a red banner reading "indigenous justice is climate justice."
Indigenous Justice. Source: John Englart, Creative Commons.

The briefest look at American and Canadian history clearly shows that the pipeline situations are most certainly not the first instance of the government refusing to respect the lands, waters, and even peoples of indigenous groups. Until 2016, Canada officially objected to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada is considered one of the most water-rich countries in the world and yet many indigenous communities continue to be provided with inadequate access to safe drinking water which provides a large public health concern for these communities. The Canadian federal government refused to provide child and family services funding for indigenous children living on reserves, a purposeful discrimination tactic against indigenous communities. It has been determined that the pervasive violence against indigenous women amounts to genocide.

In the United States, there live over 5.2 million indigenous peoples and among them, 573 federally recognized tribes, numerous unrecognized nations, and many communities scattered across the North American continent, displaced by a long history of western oppression and forced assimilation. Between the years of 1778 and 1871 alone, the United States government has signed over 370 treaties with different indigenous nations, nearly all of which promised peace, defined land boundaries, and protection of land, water, and hunting rights. Based on the current status of indigenous peoples within the United States, it is evident that these treaties and those that followed were either never fulfilled or were manipulated to provide leverage for the United States government. President Biden’s executive order ending the construction of the Keystone XL is a very hopeful step forward, however it needs to serve as a pushing off point for the administration to continue furthering both environmental and indigenous rights.