Opinion: Michigan tribes call out violence against women

Whitney Gravelle

For my people, the Anishinaabe, the season of spring is a symbol of life, rebirth and growth after enduring many harsh and bitter winter months. It is a time for healing and empowerment. However, for many Native Americans across the United States, the month of May is a stark reminder of the astounding rates of violence and murder of Native women in the United States. The month of May is for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW). 

The state of Michigan has 12 federally recognized tribes that have lived upon this land since time immemorial. The 12 tribes make up a small percentage of the Michigan population, yet Native women continue to suffer disproportionate rates of domestic violence, murder, stalking, rape and sexual assault. 

The National Institute of Justice reports that more than 4 in 5 Native women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetimes, more than 1 in 2 have experienced physical or sexual violence by intimate partners, and more than 1 in 12 have experienced such violence in the past year.

In addition, in some counties, Native women face rates of murder that are 10 times higher than the national average. Many Native women who have faced violence report being victimized by non-Indian perpetrators. 

Despite these numbers, the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women goes largely ignored by the general public. This is partly due to the fact that the history of violence against Native women is convoluted by the complex jurisdictional scheme that exists for tribes in the United States.

For more than 40 years, tribes have been denied the ability to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators, and both a lack of resources and help from the federal government impedes investigations and prevents tribes from providing Native women with the protection and help they deserve. 

One of the initiatives of the Michigan Women’s Commission is to raise awareness around human trafficking and sexual assault. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Michigan ranked seventh in the nation in 2019 with 172 reported cases of human trafficking. That’s down from 2018’s high of 383, cases but reported incidents of human trafficking in Michigan have been on the rise since 2012.

For the survivors of human trafficking, nearly all of them reported having experienced physical and sexual violence. For the state of Michigan, all of these issues are woven into a narrative that demands we do more for the women of Michigan. 

It is necessary that tribes are empowered with the ability, resources and partnerships that allow them to adequately investigate, prosecute and punish the crimes committed against Native women. Today, the Michigan Women’s Commission stands in solidarity with Native women to raise awareness and visibility of these issues and with those who have been impacted by these tragedies in the tribes throughout the state of Michigan, the United States and Canada. 

We pledge our support for the resilient women who have survived these traumas, and dedicate ourselves to continue working towards a solution, so that the daughters of our future will one day no longer suffer these injustices. 

Kwewag gchitwaa aawiwag. [Women are sacred.]

Whitney Gravelle serves on the Michigan Women’s Commission and is a tribal attorney for the Bay Mills Indian Community.