Indigenous Women, Children in U.S., Canada Face Ongoing Injustice, Violence

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Indigenous women (including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) continue to face socio-economic issues today, such as high disappearance rates and intergenerational trauma. The first colony in North America, founded in 1607, initiated a rocky history between settlers and Indigenous communities whose adverse effects can be seen today.

In Canada during the 19th century, Indigenous children were removed (many times forcibly) from their families and put in residential schools owned by the government and run by the church. A policy, which the government labeled “aggressive assimilation,” forced countless native children to adopt Christianity and speak English. The children, who generally lived in below-par standards, struggled with frequent emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

While most schools stopped operating by the mid-1970s with the last school closing down in 1990, the effects of this period are reflected today. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report on the residential schools connected the schools as a cause of higher rates of poor mental and physical effects in Indigenous populations. This is often referred to as intergenerational trauma, where trauma in one generation affects the next one, regardless of if the event that caused the trauma is over. When one generation is subjected to traumatic treatment like the residential schools, it subjects the next generation to lasting effects, such as homelessness and abuse.

In residential schools, students were subjected to abuse and poor treatment on a regular basis, which is why the next generation of the Indigenous community faced the lasting effects of this abuse. Today, Indigenous communities have higher rates of unemployment and homelessness, disproportionate incarceration rates, poorer living conditions, and higher rates of substance abuse.

According to a National Institute of Justice funded study, this trend can also be seen in the United States, where more than four in five Indigenous people will have experienced violence in their lifetime, and more than one in three experienced violence in the past year.

Indigenous women, in particular, are affected by the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, as their Indigenous and female identity makes them particularly vulnerable to issues that come with poverty and historical marginalism. More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women experienced violence in the U.S., and more than one in two experienced sexual violence. However, most women will never see justice for their abusers. Between 2005 and 2009, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 67% of the Indian country cases involving sexual abuse and related matters.

In Canada, Indigenous women are murdered at a seven times higher rate as compared to non-Indigenous women. This statistic doesn’t include women who disappeared under mysterious circumstances or cases that were mistakenly labeled, therefore these numbers could be an underestimate of the reality.

However, it remains clear that Indigenous women are highly targeted. Only 62% of the homicides were carried out by someone close to the victim, compared to the 74% average of all other non-Indigenous women.

While further investigation about the cause of higher missing/murder rates between indigenous and non-indigenous women needs to be conducted, racism and violence against the Indigenous community is a plausible answer. Canada has launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and funding to survivors and families of those missing, but neither governments have addressed the root cause of the violence.

Through Teen Lenses: What do you know about the history and current issues surrounding Indigenous women (Ex: Highway of Tears, MMIWG2S) in the United States and Canada? What is your opinion about how these problems have been addressed by their respective governments?

“I don’t know much about the specific events, which is sad because they should be included more in our history curriculum. Recently, I have been educating myself on the treatment of Indigenous people, and I’m honestly disgusted at how they’ve been treated by our country and Canada. Back when we colonized this country, we raped and killed their people, and we have done pretty much nothing to even try to remedy the situation. I know that Indigenous women are disproportionately kidnapped, raped, and murdered, and our government again turns a blind eye, and it’s really upsetting. Also, the lack of accurate and inoffensive Indigenous representation is so upsetting and does nothing in terms of educating people on the issues faced in their community. Disney could not have been more inaccurate or offensive in their portrayal of Pocahontas and the dynamic between white colonizers and Indigenous people, which is extremely problematic because in most cases, this is the only Indigenous representation that people are exposed .” Taylor Olson, 15, McLean High School, McLean, VA
“Everything that I know about the attention placed on missing and murdered indigenous women has been directly from native women who are asking for more attention to be placed on something that affects them so personally, and to me that’s a major issue. I think that them talking about an issue that affects them without any government acknowledgment or support shows the lack of respect that the indigenous experience has in countries like the US and Canada. It’s a little bit concerning that I’m getting the majority of my information on this issue from social media and directly from native women rather than from the government. It’s going virtually unaddressed. I don’t understand how anything substantial in preventing this from happening further can be done without government acknowledgement.” Aashna Singh, 18, Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville Maryland
“Although I’m not very knowledgeable on the topic, I am aware of the many murders and disappearances of indigenous peoples, more specifically women in the US and Canada. I think I remember reading about the specific highway [Highway of Tears] where many women go missing or their dead bodies are found. I think there was an estimate of at least 50 women murdered or missing in that area, which is absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking. The murder rate of indigenous women is much higher than the average woman of any other race, and it is shocking that we don’t hear more about this. It might be because they make up such a small percentage of the population but it’s baffling how little the general public hears about this. A video we watched in English talked about how police brutality against the indigenous community is even worse than that seen against the Black community, but no one talks about it because they are much smaller than the Black community (not trying to take away from the black experience, there is just no other way to make the comparison). I had to do a little research because we rarely hear about how the government is addressing the issues of native peoples. Canada is investing money into an inquiry to see why so many indigenous women are being killed or are missing, but I am not sure how successful it has been. They provide financial support to the families of the dead or missing and the survivors, but this isn’t enough. They should be implementing a task force for private investigations, or set up a system that would protect indigenous people before they are killed. Precautionary measures would be better than reparative ones after the fact.” Alexandra Haralanova, 17, 12th, Richard Montgomery Highschool, Rockville, MD