On Sept. 11, 2021, Gabby Petito was reported missing by her family in Florida. For more than a week, Gabby’s face was everywhere as her parents begged for information on her whereabouts.
Eight days after she was reported missing, Gabby’s presumed remains were found in the Bridger-Teton National Park in Wyoming.
Gabby’s story is devastating, and one we hear all too often. Her parents are, without a doubt, living their worst nightmares, but the discovery of Gabby’s remains allows them a little bit of closure so that they can begin to grieve their tremendous loss.
Though this is a luxury no family wants to have, it’s still more than can be said for the families of hundreds of missing Indigenous women and girls in the state of Wyoming (not to mention, the entire nation).
In Wyoming, Indigenous people make up only 3% of the population, but make up at least 21% of the state’s homicides. Based on data collected between 2000 and 2020, the number of Indigenous homicides was eight times higher than that for white people, and the number of murdered Indigenous females was six times higher than that of white women.
As shocking as they are, these numbers are likely much lower than what is accurate. According to Emily Grant, a Wyoming Survey and Analysis Research Scientist, this is because the demographic data of Indigenous murder victims is often incorrectly documented.
“A lot of times, [ethnicity is] not necessarily checked with people from the community, a family member, or something like that. So it’s really likely that [victims] could be miscategorized as Latino, White. And then you know, that if it’s the wrong race on there, it doesn’t show up [in data reports].”
The media attention around these homicides is also vastly different from that of white victims. In total, 51% of white homicide victims received news coverage of some kind whereas only 30% of Indigenous people’s murders received attention. Specifically, the media covered only 18% of Indigenous female victims.
Even when Indigenous homicides were reported on by the media, the descriptions contained significantly more graphic language about their cause of death. Additionally, the media’s portrayal of Indigenous murder victims often put them in a negative light and provided less information than that of white victims.
On top of that, Indigenous murder victims often don’t get the justice they deserve as their cases are frequently left unsolved.
On January 4, 2019, Joceyln Watt was brutally murdered in Riverton, Wyoming. Despite all the video surveillance available and the numerous interview conducted, her case has never been resolved. A year later, Jocelyn’s sister Jade Wagon met the same fate.
It’s not just the disproportionate number of homicides of Indigenous people in Wyoming that sticks out, either, it’s also the unnerving statistics around missing Indigenous people in the state. Between 2011 and 2020, 710 Indigenous people were reported missing across the state, the majority of which were female and juveniles. Of them, only 50% were found within a week. It’s a difficult pill to swallow when we just saw a young, out-of-state white woman found in merely eight days.
This isn’t just a problem in Wyoming, either. In 2019, American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN) combined made up 1.7% of the entire US population, and yet, as of August of 2021, this group makes up 3.5% of the total number of unresolved missing person cases in the US, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Yet, we never see the media react to these situations with the same sense of outrage and urgency as we’ve seen with Gabby’s case.
Take the case of Rosalita Faye Longee, a young Indigenous woman of the Yakama Tribe, who went missing in Washington state in 2015. Six years later and she’s never been found. Although the country has given up on her case, her grandmother continues to search for her in homeless shelters, treatment centers, cheap hotels, and large crowds. Rosalita, who went by Rose, would be 22 years old this year.
When young, attractive white women and girls go missing in the United States, the country is quick to rally around their families and fight for justice. But, what about women of color? Where is their justice?
It’s time we start putting pressure on law enforcement and the justice system to bring closure to the families of all missing people, regardless of what they look like and where they come from.
For a more comprehensive list of the missing and murdered Indigenous women, head to Justice For Native Women.