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Boise State report: 75% of missing Indigenous people in Idaho are women

Women's March California 2019 - Los Angeles
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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 19: Activists march for missing and murdered Indigenous women at the Women's March California 2019 on January 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrations are slated to take place in cities across the country in the third annual event aimed to highlight social change and celebrate women's rights around the world. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)

Researchers recommend more resources for tribal officials, better data collection

Hundreds of people go missing across Idaho every year for many reasons, and among non-Native people, the majority are over the age of 21 and about 60% are males.

Among missing Native people in Idaho, approximately half are under the age of 21 and 75% of them are women.

Those findings are part of a report from Boise State University detailing issues surrounding Idaho’s missing and murdered Indigenous persons. The report followed House Concurrent Resolution 33, which was passed by the Idaho Legislature in 2020 and declared the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women as a crisis. The resolution also designated May 5 as a day of awareness, and supported efforts to research the cause and potential solutions in conjunction with Idaho’s five federally recognized tribes: Shoshone-Bannock, Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai, Nez Perce and Shoshone-Paiute.

It is the first study focused on Idaho’s missing and murdered Indigenous people, conducted by Melanie Fillmore and Lane Gillespie, researchers within Boise State’s School of Public Service. Fillmore is a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, and Gillespie is an associate professor in the school’s criminal justice program.

Findings from the report included these facts:

  • Idaho’s average missing persons rate is approximately 10.59 per 100,000 persons. The average rate for Indigenous persons in Idaho is 18.99 per 100,000 persons.
  • Approximately 63% of Idaho’s Indigenous missing persons have been missing for more than one year.
  • Idaho’s Indigenous missing persons are 75% female. Of non-Indigenous missing persons in Idaho, 28.8% are female.
  • Half of Idaho’s Indigenous missing persons went missing as adults, and 50% went missing as juveniles. Among non-Indigenous missing persons, 61.5% went missing as adults and 33.5% as juveniles.
  • In 2020, National Crime Information Center entries for Indigenous persons were 3.38% of total entries in Idaho, compared to 1.76% of total entries nationwide. 

Fillmore’s involvement with the project started in 2019, when she worked on data analysis with three Indigenous communities in Idaho on the subject of domestic violence.
“Every single one of their communities had experienced a missing or murdered case in the time of that project,” Fillmore said. “So out of that project grew collaboration.”

Fillmore also helped draft the House concurrent resolution, which was sponsored by Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, and Tyrel Stevenson, legislative director of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Funding for the study was also approved by the Legislature.

“We are now the ninth state to have a statewide report, and all of those reports have been intended for a wide range of audiences and are usually tied to some type of legislative action,” Gillespie said. “… It’s really meant to serve as that initial statewide assessment addressing questions around scope, issues and avenues for responding to those issues.”

Boise State researcher: History plays a role in attitudes toward Native women

Idaho’s average missing persons rate is approximately 10.6 per 100,000 people, while the average rate for Indigenous people is nearly 19 per 100,000, and more than 60% of them have been missing for more than a year. On average, there are 81 Indigenous missing persons reported to the National Crime Information Center in Idaho per year.

Nationally, groups have raised the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls especially after a report from the Urban Indian Health Institute showed 5,712 cases were reported in 2016 and 116 of them had been logged in the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database.

In late 2019, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order forming the Operation Lady Justice Task Force to address the concerns of Indigenous communities and establish missing and murdered unit offices in seven states, including Montana, Alaska and South Dakota.

Fillmore said history plays a role in the continued disproportionate rate at which Indigenous women and girls go missing or become victims of homicide.

“It’s not a new issue that there would be more missing women. There’s a lot of reasons for that, one of which has to do with … historical portrayals of Native women, (and) the access of Native women having rights is very complex,” Fillmore said.

Fillmore knows firsthand how complex those situations can be. Her father was taken by her grandfather, who was white, from his reservation when he was 3.

“My grandmother was not married and considered unfit (as a mother), and there would have been no way for her to get my dad back,” Fillmore said.

Indigenous people are also disproportionately represented in homicide cases in Idaho, at a rate of 6 people per 100,000 among Native American and Alaska Native populations between 2010 and 2019. The rate for white people was nearly 1.9 people per 100,000.

Changes in Idaho will require better relationships between agencies, report says 

Recommendations in the report largely focused on jurisdiction and collaboration issues among law enforcement organizations that can lead to cases not being pursued for extended periods of time. Fillmore spoke with community leaders, prosecutors, tribal agency officials and other stakeholders about missing persons cases and issues between non-Native and Native communities. One stakeholder, who was not named in the report, described how that can play out with investigations.

“Let’s say, somebody goes missing off of the (reservation). The tribal police would be heavily engaged in conducting that investigation. But once the investigation leaves the (reservation), then the question becomes what kind of collaborative cooperative working relationships does the tribal police department have with the (county sheriff’s office)?” the stakeholder said. “And as soon as that leads to another state, it becomes further complicated because … literally every day we are inundated with new problems and new things that require our immediate response. And so how seriously is the jurisdiction off of the reservation going to take that request?”

The report called for expanding the capacity of tribal law enforcement and enhancing access to case information between agencies, as well as creating consistent policies and procedures for missing persons cases regardless of jurisdiction. The recommendations also included enhancing data collection, sharing and accuracy, as well as creating more capacity in the Idaho Missing Persons Clearinghouse and Indigenous victim services.

Fillmore said it will also take time to build trust between Native and non-Native jurisdictions to increase collaborative efforts.

“I don’t expect folks who have experienced trauma to ever have high trust in some of these systemic processes. I have lived through trauma and domestic violence myself, so that is just something I recognize in this issue,” Fillmore said. “… I think that there’s a great deal of learning and an education component that can impact trust.”

Gillespie said she hopes the research will be a stepping stone to more action, and she wants to see communication continue between policy makers and tribal officials.

“I’m hoping this report can be used as an initial step, even if it is an overdue initial step, to provide some additional information to contribute to the existing momentum,” Gillespie said, “to add momentum where it might be needed to give folks something to point to and to provide some considerations for directions moving forward.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.