The red handprint painted across the mouths of female Indigenous faces—TikTok videos have hashtag views in the millions—is a symbol of silent genocide happening today in American Indian Country where a rampage of violence against Native girls and women is loose.
Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel, a national runner from the Kul Wikasa Oyate (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) in South Dakota, first prominently wore the handprint and wrote MMIW across her legs when she ran the 2019 Boston Marathon. She prayed each mile for 26 Native sisters lost to violence and murder.
Now the handprint is synonymous to MMIWG2S, meaning “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two Spirit People.” MMIW (for short) is a coalition officially launched in 2019 to stop violence among American Indian/Alaskan Native (AI/AN) women and girls who may get less attention when they go missing than your neighbor’s Labrador. This is a human rights violation, no less serious than war crime.
The victims have surnames like “Not Afraid” and “Stops and Looks at Pretty Things.” It’s better if their bodies are found. Families say that not knowing is harder.
“Let’s get one thing straight: It’s an endemic, not an epidemic,” writes Sarah Deer, author of The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America (2017). “Epidemics are biological and blameless” she says. “Violence against Native American women is historical and political, bounded by oppression and colonial violence.”
No one really knows how many are missing. In 2016, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a criminal records database for law enforcement agencies, reported 6,000 missing Indigenous girls and women, but only 116 were logged into the National Missing Personssystem (NamUs),the federally funded database made available to tribes.
“The reservation is like a third-world country. A lot of people don’t know we still exist,” a Lakota girl says in Deborah Anderson’s award-winning documentary, Women of the White Buffalo (2021)—a project also widely associated with the red handprint image.
In 2020, NCIC reported over 9,500 cases, 734 of which made it to NamUs. “The cases that were already in NamUs, none of them have tribal affiliation listed,” says Annita Lucchesi, a Montana-based expert researcher of Cherokee and Italian descent.
Lucchesi doesn’t rely on NamUs anymore, but rather the data compiled by years of public records she and others requested for the creation of the MMIWG2S database held by Lucchesi’s nonprofit, Sovereign Bodies Institute (SBI).
But other problems are persistent. Federal regulations get tangled up with other enforcement agency protocols, creating havoc. In the context of MMIWG, this can make data collection difficult. Depending on who the victim is, the perpetrator, the nature of the crime and where it happened, one of four law enforcement agencies might assume jurisdiction: tribal, local, state, federal—a combination. Or if the system is too dysfunctional, maybe no one takes responsibility.
Experts say the solution lies in Native sovereignty. NA/AI sovereignty means the U.S. government would honor tribal treaties negotiated generations ago that map property rights, among other things, and federal protections the U.S. agreed to give tribes in exchange for ceding millions of acres of their homeland. It means the government would agree to decolonize the future for nearly 10 million people by giving back stolen land.
And it means sovereign Indigenous databases would be compiled documenting every MMIWG2S. Four out of five will experience some form of violence in their life unless something changes.
As it is, we have a third-world country in our own yard: 56.2 million acres (87,800 sq. miles) of Native American-owned land in this country, a vast, remote hunting ground where girls and women can be taken with force, assaulted or murdered without much notice. Not far off, drilling rigs and pipeline projects (where man camps abound), sex and drug trafficking rings, systemic drug and alcohol abuse all lead to more MMIWG2S. Most perpetrators are non-Indian.
Native-led nonprofits, in the meantime, have taken it upon themselves to highlight the issue at least in part by building databases that capture the full enormity of the crisis. It’s a picture they believe is so much bigger than what the public knows.
You can help out. This is a moment when the word is being spread faster and better than perhaps any other time in America and Canada. We must help these girls and women seize it and blow it out of the water. Please take part in continuing to spread the word by retweeting the red handprint and/or hashtagging MMIWG2S on TikTok, for example. This pressing issue will only improve as awareness explodes, communities come together and action is taken.
Please familiarize yourself with the tragedy. Feature film suggestion (warning, it’s graphic): Wind River directed by Taylor Sheridan (2017), starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen— watch the trailer.