Content warning: There are references to violence against women in this article.
Image by Soni Lopez-Chavez, retrieved from Lauren Gilger’s article Everyone Was Talking about Gabby Petito, But Indigenous Women’s Cases Still Go Ignored.
The disappearance and homicide of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman, captured America’s attention in September 2021, when she was first reported missing by her family. Petito went missing on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie.
On September 19, 2021, the police discovered Gabby Petito’s remains in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, just eight days after disappearing. Her death was ruled a homicide. Her fiancé’s remains, Laundrie, who had been missing since the beginning of the investigation and was a person of interest in the homicide, were discovered in October 2021. His death was ruled as a suicide.
Updates on Petito’s case have been widely covered by news outlets and continue to receive coverage today, six months after her initial disappearance. Petito’s case became a national sensation on social media and in the media, but would it have gotten as much attention if she was a person of color, particularly an indigenous woman?
A Wyoming Statewide Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People shows that at least 700 Indigenous Americans - most of whom are women and girls - have disappeared in Wyoming from 2011 to 2020. According to statistics, Native American women are murdered and sexually assaulted at rates up to ten times higher than the national average in some counties in the United States, crimes done predominantly by non-native Americans. Clearly, mainstream media prioritizes white women who have gone missing or been murdered compared to any other racial and gender group. This leaves the disappearances of hundreds of Indigenous women to be ignored and dismissed.
Image retrieved from Native Hope: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
Many crimes against Indigenous women are underreported, under-investigated, and overlooked due to conflicts over jurisdiction in Native Nations and data gaps. Despite the obvious need for legislative reform, a study from the Urban Indian Health Initiative found that 95% of cases involving Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women were not covered by national or international news media.
In response to the generations-long silent violence epidemic, the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women movement began using the hashtags #MMIW and #MMIWG2S (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit individuals). The hashtag was created to provide a voice to women whose experiences have gone unheard, as well as to raise awareness of violence in Indigenous communities.
The hashtags have circulated online since 2016. In September 2021, Morgan Sung showed that “the tag #mmiw [had] more than 144,000 posts. On TikTok, the tag #mmiw [had] 248.6 million views, and the tag #mmiwawareness [had] 65 million.” Today, on instagram #mmiw has more than 158,000 posts, on TikTok it has 282.7 million views and the tag #mmiawareness has 78.9 million views.
By contrast, within just a couple of days from when Petito was reported missing in September 2021, Morgan Sung reports “ [h]er [Gabby Petito] name #gabbypetito [had] roughly 812 million views, the tag #findgabbypetito [had] 69.3 million, #gabbypetitoupdate [had] 133 million, and #whereisgabbypetito [had] 48.4 million [on TikTok].”. Six months later, #gabbypetito has 1.9 billion views, #findgabbypetito has 85.0 million views, #gabbypetitoupdate has 419.4 million views, and #whereisgabbypetito has 52.9 million views.
Not only do these numbers speak to the power of social media, but they show the discrepancy between the white missing women's experience and the Indigenous missing women's experience in America. Moreover, these numbers reflect the "missing white woman syndrome," which refers to the media's coverage of missing-person cases involving young, white, upper-middle-class women or girls, as opposed to the lack of attention given to missing women who are not white or from lower socioeconomic strata.
Image retrieved from @ArtwithMsNixon on Twitter
It's important to note that highlighting the discrepancy between Gabby Petito's case and that of many indigenous women isn't meant to minimize the tragedy of Petito's death; instead, it should serve as a reminder of how prevalent it is for women to experience violence throughout their lives. Moreover, Petito should not be faulted for the extensive media coverage her case received. Rather, this reflects the lack of awareness and care on the part of news organizations and government agencies towards non-white victims.