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Gabby Petito is one of tens of thousands of missing individuals—particularly those who are Native Americans—who have not yet found justice.
Despite this, there is a stark contrast between the amount of media coverage Petito and other missing Indigenous peoples are receiving. Gabby Petito, a single white woman, remains the focus of the media’s attention even though thousands of Native Americans have been reported missing or dead. They both deserve recognition and justice, and yet only Petito is receiving it.
Some say the media is suffering from “missing white woman syndrome.” That is, “white women occupying a privileged role as violent crime victims in news media reporting,” as described by Charlton McIlwain, an NYU Professor of Media, Culture and Communication.
The idea that the media has “missing white woman syndrome” is true, however harsh it may sound. Missing non-white people unequivocally receive less attention than missing white people. It is a continuing pattern of racial inequality of which Gabby Petito and Indigenous people are a prime example.
22-year-old Gabby Petito was reported missing by her parents 13 days after her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, returned home alone after a cross-country road trip together. Her body was found in Wyoming on Sep. 18, and her fiancé named a person of interest in her disappearance.
Prior to her death, bodycam footage from a police officer in Moab, Utah, displayed Petito distressed after an alleged physical altercation with her fiancé. The officer eventually left without doing anything, painting both Laundrie and the Moab City Police Department unfavorably.
Laundrie, though not officially the suspect behind his fiancée’s death, has been indicted for the unauthorized use of a debit card and is currently on the run. FBI, police and even TV personalities Dog the Bounty Hunter and John Walsh—the host of “America’s Most Wanted”—are searching for him.
Gabby Petito is now a household name. The entire nation is leaning forward in their seats, following her story and hoping for justice. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Native Americans.
In Wyoming alone, where Gabby Petito’s body was found, a state report by the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) reveals that of the 710 Indigenous people reported missing in the past decade, only five were recorded in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database, which is run by the U.S. federal Department of Justice.
This problem spans nationwide. A study done by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention shows that one in 130 Native children go missing every year. That number is sky-high as compared to the one in 135 non-Native children that go missing yearly and is projected to be much greater. A lack of awareness and, therefore, a lack of data means these numbers are most likely estimated too low.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention also did a study on the injustices Native Indian people face. It found that homicide is the third-leading cause of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN). For women specifically, a report by the National Congress of Congressional Indians (NCAI) shows that Native American women are ten times more likely to be killed than the national average in some countries.
These numbers are extremely large, to say the least. Thousands of Native Americans, who lived and breathed the same air that we do, have been reduced to a grim statistic. Sadly, thousands more will also find themselves another number on a spreadsheet; going missing is not the only problem Indigenous people have to worry about.
A National Institute of Justice-funded study discovered that 84.3 percent of AI/AN women and 81.6 percent of AI/AN men have experienced violence in their lifetime. For 56.1 percent of those females and 27.5 percent of those males, it was sexual assault. Furthermore, the data collected shows that the perpetrators are regularly non-Indigenous. For Indigenous victims of either sex, over 90 percent experienced violence by an interracial person.
But why is this so? Why have so many Indigenous people become victims of violence in the first place?
According to a study by the University of Colorado, it is largely due to the Bakken oil boom and “man camps.” When the Keystone XL Pipeline was authorized, hundreds of mostly male laborers spread across the Canada-United States border. Temporary housing for them called “man camps” were set up and often in the vicinity of indigenous tribes. Almost immediately after, there was an uptick in violent victimization of Native Americans.
Brandi Morin, a journalist for The Guardian, also believes oil pipelines contribute to the MMIWG crisis.
“[Pipelines] bring camps of outside workers, mainly non-Indigenous men, to Indigenous areas. These man camps contribute to the crisis of violence against Indigenous women and girls,” Morin wrote in The Guardian.
“Our women continue to disappear and die. There have been approximately 4,000 or more Indigenous murdered or missing women and girls in the last 30 years. That works out to about 133 a year, or three a week,” she wrote. “If white women were being stolen at this rate, there would be worldwide outrage.”
Well, Morin was half-right. Gabby Petito, a single missing white woman, has received national attention. While no one can say it is not deserved, aren’t missing Indigenous people like Tina Fontaine just as deserving of just as much media coverage?
The lack of media coverage means missing and murdered Indigenous peoples have become a horrific trend. If more major news sources reported on missing Native Americans more often, more people would be aware of the MMIWG crisis and find the opportunity to do something about it.
Thankfully, there are several groups dedicated to addressing the MMIWG crisis. For example, the Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) aims to do just that. Likewise, Indigenous-led Sovereign Bodies is dedicated to researching gender and sexual violence against indigenous people. Groups like the Indigenous Women Hike and Cultural Survival aim to bring awareness through the preservation of indigenous lands, culture and traditions.
While Gabby Petito more than deserves people looking to bring her justice, so do American Indian and Alaska Native individuals. Their struggles have gone without support for centuries. The racial inequalities they face are reflective of the oppression of Native Americans centuries ago—even the Pilgrims did not do right by them.