Gabby Petito’s body was found in a state where 700 Indigenous people were reported missing in one decade. Still, no one knew their stories.
Megan VerHelst Patch Staff
ACROSS AMERICA — For two weeks, the disappearance of Gabby Petito has dominated news headlines. Social media users scoured the internet for clues to her whereabouts. Law enforcement descended on Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park en masse where, just days after the world learned she was missing, they located the 22-year-old’s body.
The search was nothing less than a swift, multi-agency effort to find the missing Long Island native.
Petito, a young white woman, was reported missing on Sept. 11 while on a cross-country trip with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. However, studies show the magnitude of the response following Petito’s disappearance is not as common when the missing person is a woman of color.
When a woman of color is reported missing, her disappearance receives substantially less media coverage. When it is covered, she’s often portrayed in a negative light.
The discrepancy hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In fact, it’s leading many people — some whose loved ones have been missing for years — to pose a question: Why didn’t our case get the same attention?
Petito’s body was found just two hours northwest of the Wind River Indian Reservation, home to thousands of Shoshone and Arapaho Indians. It’s the only reservation in a state where Indigenous people have been reported missing in nearly every county, according to a January report released by the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force . It also said more than 700 Indigenous people — mostly women — have been reported missing in Wyoming since 2011.
Many of the cases did not get the same attention as Petito’s.
There’s a term for it, coined by the late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill — it’s called “missing white woman syndrome.” Simply put, it means Americans have historically paid more attention when a white woman disappears, while glossing over cases of missing people of color.
“It takes all of our attention,” Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, founder and director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace and Social Justice at Loyola University, told WBAL Radio. “News turns to it, police officers, the FBI — everybody does everything possible when a white woman goes missing.”
The numbers back up Ifill and Whitehead’s conclusions.
While 50 percent of Indigenous people are found within one week of being reported missing, 29 percent remain missing for 30 days or longer, compared with 11 percent of white people, according to the task force’s report.
When it comes to media coverage, only 30 percent of Indigenous homicide victims were mentioned in newspaper media coverage, compared with 51 percent of white homicide victims.
At 18 percent, Indigenous female homicide victims had the least amount of newspaper media coverage, the report found.
The authors of the report also noted that when media did cover cases of missing Indigenous people, the coverage was more likely to contain violent language, portray the victim in a negative light, and provide less information as compared with articles about white homicide victims.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Thursday said that while her heart goes out to Petito’s family, she also grieves for “so many Indigenous women” whose families have endured similar heartache “for the last 500 years.”
Haaland, the first Native American to serve in the U.S. Cabinet and a member of the Pueblo Laguna tribe, said she has frequently seen Native American family members posting pictures on fences and the sides of buildings to help locate missing girls or women.
When that happens, “you know I see my sisters,” she told reporters Thursday at a news conference, according to an Associated Press report. “I see my mother. I see my aunties or my nieces or even my own child. So I feel that every woman and every person who is in this victimized place deserves attention and deserves to be cared about.”
The discrepancies aren’t exclusive to Indigenous communities.
About 36 percent of people reported missing in the United States in 2020 were Black, according to the Black & Missing Foundation , yet Black Americans comprise only 13 percent of the nation’s population.
When these cases were covered by the media, the foundation discovered the missing individuals were more likely to be classified as runaways or criminals.
Maricris Drouaillet and her family have spent nearly nine months searching for her sister, Maya Millete , a mother of three who disappeared from her home in Chula Vista, California, in January.
The family had moved to the United States from the Philippines when Millete was 12. Since her disappearance, Millete’s husband has been named a person of interest in her disappearance.
Drouaillet told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that she wasn’t surprised by the reaction to Petito’s disappearance , though it brought up emotions of “hurt and heartbreak.”
“Even before Gabby’s case was out there, I felt that maybe if we were white or with money or had names, we probably would have gotten a different approach, more help and support,” Drouaillet told the news program. “Every missing person deserves to be in a headline. We have to put awareness out there and seek help from the public because a lot of times the public are the ones who help solve the case.”
There’s also the case of 24-year-old geologist Daniel Robinson, who has been missing since June. Last seen in Arizona, his case is just now gaining media attention.
“We’re not going to stop looking, trying to spread the word far as we can. I have to find my child,” Daniel’s father, David Robinson, told WBAL Radio.
In Wyoming, where Petito’s body was found, steps have been taken to raise awareness and create a better system to report and track missing people of color.
Legislation signed a year later improved data collection for missing and murdered individuals and also requires officials to provide training to law enforcement on cases involving Indigenous people.
In nearby Montana, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs opened a cold case team office in Billings dedicated to i nvestigating and re-analyzing cases of missing and murdered Indigenous persons. When it opened in 2020, only 116 of the nearly 6,000 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women were listed in the Justice Department’s official database, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said in a news release posted to his website.
Tester was among those who fought for and lauded the team’s creation.
“Far too many missing person cases in Indian Country have fallen by the wayside,” Tester said in a statement.
In October 2020, Congress passed Savanna’s Act, named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe. Savanna’s Act is intended to help law enforcement track, solve and prevent crimes against Native Americans, especially women and girls.
Greywind was 8 months pregnant when she disappeared from her home in Fargo, North Dakota. Her body was later found in the Red River, duct-taped and wrapped in plastic. Her baby had been cut from her womb.
The Not Invisible Act , sponsored by Haaland when she served in Congress, is also being implemented by the federal government. The act mandates the creation of a commission to work with Indigenous and Native American survivors of trafficking and sexual assault, organizations focused on violence against Indigenous women and children, and family members of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
Haaland said part of her mission as interior secretary is to bring more attention to Native American issues.
Haaland reinforced this at Thursday’s news conference, the AP reported, saying it feels like it’s her job to “lift up the issue.”
“And hopefully,” she said, “the folks who are writing the news and broadcasting the news will understand that these women are also friends, neighbors, classmates and work colleagues.”
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