TOPPENISH, WA - Every day Native American mothers, daughters, sisters, and children go missing at an alarming rate. And while native people make up just 2% of the U.S population, according to the Department of Justice indigenous women are ten times more likely to be murdered than any other American.
"This crisis is getting swept under the rug and no one wants to acknowledge the root causes of it or the solutions," said Carolyn Deford, a Puyallup Tribal Member and activist.
In 2019 the FBI reported over 5,600 Native American women as missing, but activists say the number is likely much higher.
"If the laws around, and the policy around Indian people were made for genocide and set on genocide... why would they wanna stop it now," Caroyln told NBC Right Now.
Athena "Pebbles" Sanchey has spent the last 15 years raising awareness on the issue, and she's read all the files for missing women in Yakama Nation, where 32 cases remained unsolved.
The Yakama Nation reservation ranks fourth in the nation for having the most missing and murdered indigenous people.
"I mean it's devastating how someone could do that to a women's body, and I wanted to read them (the files) to understand what this really is about, and how some of these bodies were found… its' unbelievable to where it hurts, and trying to get justice for that- that's what this is really about." Athena told NBC Right Now.
The missing and murdered indigenous women epidemic dates back to the early 1960's, and it's happening across the U.S, both on reservations and urban areas where about 70% of natives call home. The perpetrators are almost never held accountable.
22 years ago Carolyn Deford's mother disappeared in Oregon and never returned home. Since then Carolyn has devoted herself to helping others seeking justice, but it's been an uphill battle:
"I think it's just the culmination of centuries of failed Indian policy that have left native people and native women vulnerable to be targeted," she said.
Carolyn also says she is frustrated by the "lack of action, resources, protections" for her people and "accountability for those who target native women," and tells NBC Right Now it's time for change.
"It feels like they (native women) don't matter, that they didn't matter and that the initial goal of our government was to get rid of them anyway... so why look for them, why try and stop it, why have accountability for justice," she said.
According to the National Institute of Justice 84% of indigenous women have experienced sexual, physical, and psychological violence.
A 2015 report from the National Congress of American Indians found that nearly 40% of sex trafficking victims identify as native women.
"You see, this issue of missing murdered and indigenous women has always been here. Native nations have always spoken about it, however, they didn't listen to the native nations... we had to have other people, other nationalities bring the issue to the forefront," said Athena.
However, thanks to grassroots efforts, Carolyn, Athena and other activists will tell you the MMIW movement has really gained some traction in the last several years. State and federal leaders are starting to pay attention, and the awareness is growing beyond reservations and tribes.
But in order to make a true impact, Carolyn says we have to start by restructuring the process of reporting a missing native person.
"It's a bowl of spaghetti- the jurisdictional boundaries and the jurisdictional challenges that happen are so hard to explain or define that a lot of times law enforcement doesn't know who has jurisdiction over things. Ya know, it might depend on did they crime happen on the road, did it happen on the reservation, did it happen on trust land... was it a native, was it a non native, or was the victim native and the perpetrator non native- it's a mess," she said.
Thou despite the roadblocks they face these women tell me they will continue fighting for justice.
"To me it's personal because it's happening to indigenous women, it's happening on our lands and some of these people I knew… and for the list to just keep growing, and some of the people not being found, I mean that should be personal to everybody around here," Athena said.
If you know of any missing person you'd like to report or any details on a missing person, you can contact the following organizations: National Center for Missing and Murdered Exploited Children, the National Runaway Safeline, Urban Indian Health Institute, and MMIW USA amongst several others.
For more information and to stay up to date on missing indigenous women, like MMIW USA on Facebook.