OU Gamma Delta Pi members raise tribal domestic violence, sexual assault awareness
Updated: Feb 20
Originally published at OU Daily 6 March, 2019
Throughout Cordelia Falls Down’s life, she has seen women and girls around her go missing, and has feared for her own safety as an indigenous woman.
Falls Down, former Miss Indian OU and current member of OU’s Indian American sorority, Gamma Delta Pi, said she’s experienced incidents of being followed or feeling watched, which resulted in panic attacks in certain instances.
“(It’s) embedded in your head about how many people go missing,” the political science senior said. “With the numbers and statistics, I’m very likely to get taken, or you know, sexually assaulted.”
Indigenous women are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes than women of all other races, according to a statement from the Oklahoma Native Alliance Against Violence (NAAV), the only tribal domestic violence and sexual assault coalition in the state. Gamma Delta Pi and NAAV are two Norman-based Oklahoma organizations working to spread awareness to this issue.
In a 2017 survey identifying 506 cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in the U.S., the Urban Indian Health Institute found that Oklahoma was one of the top 10 states with the highest numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) cases. Across 71 cities, Oklahoma City was one of the top 10 cities with the highest number of MMIW cases that are not in law enforcement records, with seven cases.
Falls Down said several factors play into why Native women go missing, including the lack of attention to the epidemic, victim blaming by the media and police and the lack of databases regarding the incidents, resulting in fewer statistics known by the public.
Lucretia Lovato, social work senior and member of Gamma Delta Pi, said MMIWG in her tribe in Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico, was just part of her life.
“It wasn’t till I was older that I realized that it’s not normal,” Lovato said. “It was something that (had) just been normal in my community, so it was actually quite shocking to find out that’s not very common outside of Indian country.”
Lovato said she personally has known at least 15 indigenous women who were missing and murdered, and hundreds who experienced some sort of sexual violence.
According to NAAV’s missing and murdered list, there are currently 13 missing indigenous women, 11 missing children and eight unsolved murders of indigenous women in Oklahoma.
Osceola moved to Norman in 2013, and on Sept. 25 of the same year the Norman Police Department found her murdered in her apartment, said detective Jim Parks, NPD cold case investigator. Her autopsy revealed no clear cause of death, he said.
Parks is the NPD’s only cold case investigator, and works part time for 20 hours a week due to departmental financial restrictions, he said.
Parks spends his days leafing through various binders and notebooks of handwritten cold case files, trying to track down new leads, and reaching out to pathologists and anthropologists to attempt to discover Osceola’s cause of death, among other cold cases, he said.
Parks said it’s important for departments to continue investigating cold cases such as Osceola’s because “it’s important for victims' families to know the truth...even if it takes forever.”
“You know, nobody can speak for Osceola,” Parks said. “I like to think I speak for her because she can’t speak for herself. And I’d like for the truth to come out in that case.”
There are 25 tribal domestic violence and sexual assault programs in Oklahoma that offer services for violence survivors. NAAV works to coordinate between them and create resources, said Raven Word, NAAV communications specialist.
Word said there is not one database to find MMIWG in Oklahoma, so in 2018 when she joined NAAV, it became her job to create a running missing and murdered list to “reclaim their visibility."
The list is divided into three categories: one for missing women, one for missing children and one for cold cases of murdered women called “In loving memory: Still searching for answers.”
According to the National Institute of Justice Research Report in May 2016, 84.3 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence including sexual violence, physical violence, stalking and psychological aggression by an intimate partner. Overall, the report states that 1.5 million American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime.
“This word epidemic that we use – I mean, it describes it perfectly – but I didn’t realize that our numbers were so high compared to the national average,” Lovato said.
The report further compares lifetime sexual violence perpetrated against American Indian or Alaska Native women with non-Hispanic white women through a lifetime sexual assault violence against women survey. It states that 56 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women surveyed experienced sexual violence, compared to 49 percent of non-Hispanic white women surveyed.
Lovato said the larger issue in the U.S. is not only that Native women are systematically more likely to experience violence in their lives, but that the violence perpetrated against them is less reported than that against other ethnicities.
According to the Urban Indian Health Institute’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2017 report, in 2016 only 116 out of 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were logged in the U.S. Department of Justice's federal missing persons database, NamUs.
Word is a member of the Apache tribe and grew up in a Native community where she attends powwows and engages with her tribe. Before she worked at NAAV, she wasn’t aware of the “bad things in native communities,” she said.
“Hearing these things about domestic violence (and) sexual assault in Native communities was just amazing to me,” Word said. “I had never heard that in the news. And it’s not like I wasn’t paying attention – I was paying attention.”
Word said MMIWG is tied directly to the amounts of domestic and sexual violence and systemic racism Native American women face.
“The Native women that are going missing – they’re part of a very marginalized group, so it’s hard for them to get visibility just because that’s how it’s been for a long time,” Word said. “A lot of indigenous women feel that they’re overlooked because Natives are viewed like we’re history – we’re here, we’re now, we’re still here.”
Word said there is not one centralized location in Oklahoma where native women go missing, the size of the state and spread-out locations of the tribal headquarters make it difficult to track the current numbers of MMIWG.
To spread awareness of the MMIWG “in our own backyard,” Gamma Delta Pi has partnered with NAAV in the past, according to a statement from the alliance.
Gamma Delta Pi hosted a MMIWG week in fall 2018 to raise awareness of the epidemic and safety of native women on campus.
The event included a march through the South Oval, a benefit night, starting conversations with passersby, passing out red ribbons, which symbolize the MMIWG movement, and a red sand display, which symbolized MMIWG who have fallen through the cracks of the justice system. The sorority plans to host another MMIWG week in fall 2019, Falls Down said.
Falls Down said NAAV is Gamma Delta Pi’s philanthropy, and prior to hosting the week-long event, the chapter had discussed involvement in the cause.
“It’s been a discussion for a while,” Falls Down said. “We've all been aware of the MMIW(G) (movement), and we’ve done things throughout semesters to bring awareness.”
Lovato said she uses every spare moment she has to speak with people about MMIWG.
“I talk about it all the time, whenever I can,” Lovato said. “My goal for on campus is to build allies because Indian country knows that this is an issue. It's raising awareness outside of Indian country to non-Natives to let them know that this is an issue and that it needs to be talked about.”
Lovato hopes to see MMIWG awareness grow on campus, in Oklahoma and nationwide, she said. In her spare time, she is working on a proposed policy to introduce a special FBI task force focused solely on MMIWG across the nation.
“At some point, we have to be a priority to somebody’s list because this is a crazy outrageous number of MMIW(G) happening, and the nation doesn’t even know that it’s a problem,” Lovato said.