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January 22, 2024 HUMAN RIGHTS

Safety of Native Women: Save Our Sisters

By Lily Painter

When I was a young girl, there were no murals in my hometown.

The lack of murals seemed unimportant amid the other things that we did not have: more than one grocery store, a community center, restaurants, or roads that were smooth and without potholes.

To be able to create is a revered skill in all Native communities—it is centric to the continuation of not only culture and tradition but also bloodlines. This nurtured skill of creation does not just exist in the visible aspects of Native culture that are easily present to those who live outside the Native diaspora such as beadwork that can be found at many pawn shops or trading posts, wood carvings, dreamcatchers, and the like. This creation is in all things that Native people hold close.

Our creation exists in our cooking, dancing, and singing. It is in the ways that we were taught by elders to live culturally rooted lives and, in turn, how we will educate the generations that will come after us.

But no creation is so highly regarded in my own community as that of simply being a woman. A woman creates: teachings, a home, life itself. She is revered for the status she holds as the giver of life and the steward of all life that comes after her.

One of the first murals that went up in my town is a painting of Native women warriors in my state’s history. Across the wall in white letters is the Cheyenne proverb: “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. . . .” Though, no one ever remembers the words that follow. The whole quote says: “. . . then, it is finished. No matter how brave its warriors, or how strong its weapons.” 

The Save Our Sisters proposal aims to bridge the gaps in current systems for locating missing Alaska Native and American Indian individuals.

The Save Our Sisters proposal aims to bridge the gaps in current systems for locating missing Alaska Native and American Indian individuals.


I remember not liking this quote at first. I could never quite figure out what it meant, only how it made me feel. Reading it for the first time put a knot in my stomach. The imagery of hearts on the ground was something I never could take literally, though I knew in the history of what our people faced as a result of colonization, it was not impossible. I knew the stories of massacres and raids. But I could also, in my innocence, deduce that phrases and sayings are more often than not a result of the time period and political environment in which they are created—some less literal than others.

I never understood what it meant until my life was touched by violence as a result of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit (MMIWG2S+) epidemic.

And once you know something, you can never unknow it.

A woman’s heart on the ground, in the more gruesome cases, is literal. But in my experience, comparing this to the immeasurable amount of loss that is felt when a mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, or friend is stolen from us is most accurate. It is a pain that wreaks so much havoc on the body that it feels as though it is our own heart lying about on the ground in front of us.

The pain of loss and grief is not a singular feeling to the Native American woman. The human experience is to love and to lose. But what is uniquely Native about this loss is that it is never just an accident. It is never just “wrong place, wrong time.” The loss of our women is systematic, intergenerational, and a result of the tactics that have been at play since long before I, my mother, and my grandmother were alive.

The tactics of early assimilation targeted our children and our women. Our children are our future, but with no women to carry them and give them life, there is no chance for a future anyway. In the beginning, it was diminishing the traditional roles that women held in Indigenous communities in favor of a Western idea of a woman being submissive, doting, or obedient. It was the assignment of Native women to a white chaperone, which would later turn into arranged marriages. Today, it looks like the sexualization of Native women by the media, human trafficking that is especially prevalent along border towns and roads coming in and out of Tribal lands, and the inability of the justice and alert systems to accurately prevent or mediate the many threats that exist to Native women in the United States.

There can be no path to healing and reconciliation when there are not yet standards in place to actively prevent cases from escalating in the first place. Save Our Sisters, in its implementation, would not only be monumental in terms of what it enables law enforcement and search teams to achieve, but also because it relies so heavily and earnestly on the idea that every missing woman is a relative, community member, and sister to us all.

One of my most highly regarded teachings tells me that, yes, creation is innate in us all. But creation exists outside the realms of just art and life. It is our ability to reimagine and create futures for ourselves and our communities. Futures exist in which 84 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women don’t face violence in their lives. It is a future that is possible when we dedicate ourselves to pushing legislation that can make real, sustainable impacts for our communities. 

AMBER Alerts

The stark realities faced by American Indian and Alaska Native communities are reflected in deeply concerning statistics. A report by the Department of Justice in 2016 revealed that an overwhelming 84 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women, along with 82 percent of Native men, have experienced violent victimization in their lifetimes. Further highlighting this crisis, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) reported in 2022 that 10,120 American Indian and Alaska Native individuals were reported missing, with 5,491 being women and 4,629 being men. Shockingly, out of these over 10,000 cases, only 788 were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), as per the National Institute of Justice in 2022.

These alarming figures underscore the critical need for intensified efforts from law enforcement and social services at every level to address the disproportionately high rates of violence and disappearances in these communities. There’s an urgent requirement to ensure that every missing person’s case is meticulously documented and pursued, aiming for prompt and effective recovery and ultimately justice.

The Save Our Sisters proposal aims to bridge the gaps in current systems for locating missing Alaska Native and American Indian individuals. Building on the efforts of many, it proposes leveraging one of the most effective missing persons recovery mechanisms—AMBER Alerts. This initiative would allow tribes to access AMBER networks for locating missing Tribal members. Implementation of this proposal would necessitate the establishment of a national Tribal AMBER Alert coordinator position, regional Tribal AMBER Alert coordinator roles, funding incentives for states to enter into memorandums of understanding with tribes, and federal funding for tribes to develop communication and reporting mechanisms.

We urge you to join multiple tribes, the National Congress of American Indians, the Alaska Federation of Natives, and others in supporting this proposal.

We deserve to be able to create a future where we can save our sisters.

Save Our Sisters Team

Ronette Stanton (Kenaitze)

Brenda Smith (Kenaitze)

Sam Schimmel (Kenaitze/Siberian Yupik)

Lily Painter (Kiowa/Winnebago)

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Lily Painter