MMIR crisis calls for Indigenous data sovereignty

This column is written by Jodi Rave Spotted Bear (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation), who is the Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee chair. She also serves on the SPJ Foundation Board and SPJ First Amendment Forever Fund Committee. She’s the founder and executive director of the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance and publisher of Buffalo’s Fire. 

A national commission is calling on the federal government to declare a “Decade of Action and Healing” regarding the public safety crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. The commission issued a report listing its many findings, including problems of reporting and collecting data. The U.S. Interior and Justice departments issued a joint response in early March. 

“No one should have to experience the loss of a loved one – let alone losses across generations – due to the lack of resources, jurisdictional complexities or unnecessary bureaucracy,” wrote Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in a joint statement released in a 231-page report on March 5. 

To acknowledge the high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous persons, the two federal agencies responded to recommendations of the Not Invisible Act Commission, or NIAC. In its 212-page Not One More report released Nov. 1, 2023, the commission pointed to the federal government’s historic failure to uphold trust responsibilities to Native people. 

The report includes seven chapters of findings and recommendations. Chapter 2 addresses reporting and collecting data on missing, murdered and trafficked persons including 16 findings related to data collection. 

“Accurate data on Native Americans are necessary for federal, state, local, and tribal governments to monitor conditions and make informed policy and spending decisions. Unfortunately, there is a lack of available data at all levels of government but especially at the national level to ascertain the extent of the problem,” wrote subcommittee members. 

The NIAC and Indian Law and Order Commission recommended the federal government generate accurate crime reports for Indian Country. 

The Justice and Interior departments responded that DOJ “has been making steady improvements in crime reporting since the Indian Law and Order Commission released its recommendations. Since 2016, when the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting, UUCR, Program began its transition to the National Incident-Based Reporting System, NIBRS, only reporting, the FBI has collaborated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to encourage and assist Tribal agencies to report NIBRS data.” 

Overall, the Not Invisible Act subcommittee issued 14 data-related recommendations to the Interior and Justice departments, ranging from the federal government’s need to generate accurate crime reports for Indian Country and completing an audit of systems and sources that collect data on missing American Indian/Alaska Native persons. 

Not Invisible Act commissioners wrote: “There is a crisis in tribal communities. A crisis of violence, a crisis of abuse, and a crisis of abject neglect affecting Indian women and men, Indian children, and Indian elders. The federal government must act now; not tomorrow; not next week; not next month; and not next year. Once and for all, the federal government must end its systematic failure to address this crisis and react, redress, and resolve this. We call on the federal government to declare a ‘Decade of Action and Healing’ to address the crisis of missing, murdered and trafficked Indian people.” 

The report confirms one of the biggest roadblocks experienced by journalists reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous people – a lack of reliable or accessible data. 

The public safety crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples reaches far beyond advocates, federal agencies and myriad law enforcement workers. A survey by the First Nations Development Institute recently listed missing and murdered Indigenous women as the top concern of voters in the 2024 election season. 

Despite being the smallest percentage of the population, Indigenous people rank among the second highest number of reported missing and murdered persons, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. At least 11 states with Indigenous communities have launched initiatives concentrated on improving communication, data and resources. 

Journalists on the frontlines of reporting on murdered and missing Indigenous persons need a central database to accurately report on this ongoing crisis in Indian Country. 

Rebecca Landsberry-Baker (Muscogee Creek Nation), executive director of the Indigenous Journalists Association, underscored the importance of Indigenous data sovereignty – the collection, ownership, and application of data being managed by organizations rooted in community as a best practice for protecting Indigenous people and resources. 

“Indigenous journalism by and for Indigenous peoples is a key driver of self-determination and to fully realize that we must ensure that our data and histories are accurately represented within the media landscape. Expanding access to accurate news and information is essential to healthy democracies across tribal, local, state, and national levels, and a centralized database would be a critical reporting resource for all journalists covering the MMIP crisis,” Landsberry-Baker said. 

IJA President Christine Trudeau (Prairie Band Potawatomi) added that a centralized and comprehensive MMIP database is long overdue. “This is the monumental breakthrough needed to better cover this ongoing crisis, and we need it now.” 

The NIAC’s report illustrates how the lack of comprehensive, quality data has hidden how severe the missing and murdered Indigenous people’s issue is across Native American communities. Although the Justice Department declares it “has been making steady improvements in crime reporting,” it’s clear that progress is slow and inadequate. 

A central database managed by a neutral party, such as the Indigenous Journalists Association (formerly the Native American Journalists Association), is needed due to the existing lack of standardized reporting protocols across competing legal jurisdictions. 


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