San Jose advocates want better data on missing Indigenous women
Sonya Tetnowski, CEO of Indian Health Center of Santa Clara Valley, has been on the forefront of efforts to conduct research on missing and murdered Indigenous people. Photo by Joyce Chu.

Local health care representatives and activists are raising awareness for a national issue going under the radar: the alarming rate of Indigenous women who are missing or murdered.

Community members gathered at San Jose City Hall on Tuesday to raise awareness for the disproportionate violence Indigenous women face — which in certain communities is 10 times more than the national average. California has the sixth highest death rate for that demographic in urban areas. Activists also gathered to address the lack of accurate numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous people (MMIP), which they say is likely to be higher than what is known.

“Nobody knows the numbers and how we count matters,” Teresa Castellanos, San Jose Unified School District Board vice president, said at Tuesday’s news conference. “Whether they’re being counted white or as Hispanic, they’re being disappeared. In 2000, California became the state with the largest population before Oklahoma, because we started counting native Indigenous people from Mexico. So how we count matters. When we don’t count we disappear people. And unfortunately disappearance has a huge history in this continent.”

Several people called out the names of those they know who have gone missing or been murdered.

“We will hold them in our heart and we will keep this movement going until there is no more violence against Indigenous people,” Elisa Marina Alvarado from the Red Earth Women’s Society said.


Indigenous community leaders and policy makers gathered at San Jose City Hall on Tuesday, May 21 to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis. Story to come at #mmip #indigenous #policy #activism #sanjose #localgovt #localnews

♬ original sound – San José Spotlight

Eighty-four percent of Alaskan and American native women have experienced violence during their lifetime, according to a 2016 report by the National Institute of Justice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said murder is the third-leading cause of death for Indigenous women ages 10-24. Years of systemic oppression and failed government policies have left Indigenous women more vulnerable to sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, trafficking and murder, according to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.

In addition, law enforcement inaction, lack of tribal resources and conflicts of jurisdiction have caused limited accountability for these injustices. Tribal nations have their own courts and law enforcement because they are considered sovereign entities. However, due to a 1978 Supreme Court decision, tribal courts aren’t allowed to prosecute non-Native people for most crimes on tribal lands and have had to rely on state or federal governments to do so.

A 2016 report by the National Crime Information Center found 5,712 indigenous women reported to be missing, but the Department of Justice only logged 116 cases.

It gets murkier when it comes to the number of missing or murdered Indigenous people in Santa Clara County.  The Urban Indian Health Institute conducted its own independent research of MMIP in cities across the nation using law enforcement records, state and national data bases, media coverage and outreach to residents. It found zero cases in San Jose, in part because the city did not respond to its FOIA requests, according the report.

Attendees of Tuesday’s gathering said this count of zero cases is inaccurate.

Soma de Bourbon, an assistant professor at San Jose State University, conducted several focus groups that brought together about 15 local Indigenous women. She heard them share personal stories of how they had gone missing as a child or how a family member was murdered.

“What we didn’t expect was that people would be telling their personal stories of surviving MMIP,” she said.

The Indian Health Center of Santa Clara County is trying to work with the city to get better local data. At Tuesday’s San Jose City Council meeting, Councilmember Peter Ortiz presented a proclamation for May 5 to be recognized as National Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Awareness Day. The Indian Health Center, along with city leaders and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, is holding a 5:30 p.m. conference on Friday at City Hall to discuss better frameworks to combat the issue.

“We know the urgency of this crisis,” Sonya Tetnowski, CEO of Indian Health Center of Santa Clara Valley, said at the meeting. “We know there are ways forward.”

Contact Joyce Chu at [email protected] or @joyce_speaks on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misidentified who presented the city proclamation.

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply