Native Americans disproportionately go missing, data show — and federal authorities are the ones who investigate

When tragedy strikes and a Native American is murdered or disappears on one of the 324 federally recognized reservations across the country, the majority of these cases are within federal jurisdiction, requiring federal law enforcement to investigate.

And statistics show these communities see a disproportionate amount of violence and missing persons cases. More than 82% of American Indian and Alaska Native men and women reported experiences of violent victimization in their lifetime, according to the Congressional Research Service in January 2022. Similarly, Native Americans are also reported missing at higher rates than the general U.S. public, with at least 9,575 reported missing cases in 2020, according to the National Crime Information Center.

In recent years, families of missing and murdered Indigenous people, along with grassroots advocates, have pushed federal authorities to stand up task forces and pass legislation to try to address the crisis.  

Those federal authorities — like the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs — are responsible for investigating major crimes as a result of the nearly 400 treaties the United States government signed with Native tribes since 1787, when the federal government pledged to protect Native people, according to Stephen Pevar, author of “The Rights of Indians And Tribes” and an expert on Indian Law.

And crimes in these jurisdictions are prosecuted by the United States Attorneys throughout the country. But according to a recent Justice Department report, prosecutors in 2018 declined to prosecute almost 40% of all federal Indian Country cases – representing almost 1,000 potential federal crimes – citing “insufficient evidence” as the most likely reasoning.

This means in that one year there was no justice for the victims of the alleged 73 murders, 373 physical assaults and 279 sexual assaults in Indian Country. 

But even when investigations turn up a suspect, there’s still much that can go wrong in pursuing justice for the victims.

For more than a year, CBS News tracked the federal law enforcement investigation into the death of Christy Woodenthigh, a 33-year-old mother of three who lived on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeast Montana. 

Christy’s sister, Aleda Spang, heard in the early morning hours of March 7, 2020, that Christy had allegedly been run over outside of her own home. But almost immediately, Christy’s family started to question the law enforcement response. 

When Spang arrived at Christy’s house a few hours later, she said she immediately felt that something was off. “We expected like a crime scene – tape, officers still there – because it just happened a few hours ago,” Spang told CBS News. 

So beginning that night at Christy’s home, Aleda and her family went searching for answers and kicked off a months-long process of trying to find justice for their sister.

The first two episodes of the “Missing Justice” podcast follow Christy’s family and friends as they pursue justice for their sister. 

Listeners will be taken inside the complex federal justice system in Indian Country and how this system worked for Christy and her family. Later on, “Missing Justice” listeners will hear an audio recording from the investigators on Christy’s case and be taken inside the courtroom where they testified to a jury details of the investigation that followed.”

But shocking revelations by federal agents left Christy’s family with more questions than answers about what happened to their sister. 

“Missing Justice” episodes will be released each Tuesday between Nov. 22 and Dec. 20.

If you have a story or want to get in touch with the Missing Justice reporters, please email MissingJustice@cbsnews.com

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