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Research from the Heart

U of I Seniors Raise Awareness on Crimes Against Indigenous Population

Madison Wolf, who is of Yakama Nation descent, remembers hearing stories every time another Indigenous woman from their area went missing.

“I saw how much hurt it caused and how much it affected families. The more you read about some of these stories, you start to feel a little helpless. But you focus on the project and getting as much information as you can to the authorities because that’s what helps solve the cases.”

— Madison Wolf, criminology senior

Christina Briggs-Mathers has an Indigenous friend whose father was murdered.

Both University of Idaho seniors grew up in the shadow of violence against this portion of the population. And both spent a large part of their last year on campus doing something meaningful about it.

Wolf, who grew up in Star, Middleton and Eagle, and Briggs-Mathers, originally from Ogden, Utah, recently presented the findings from their recent project at the Western Society of Criminology annual conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Christina Briggs-Mathers and Madison Wolf
Christina Briggs-Mathers and Madison Wolf.

Together with Omi Hodwitz, associate professor in the Department of Culture, Society and Justice, they are compiling the most comprehensive database of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirits in the United States and Canada.

The term two-spirit is used for the non-binary or transgender population and is derived from North American Indigenous cultures.

“We aren’t trying to reach out to families or solve cases with this project,” said Briggs-Mathers, a double major in psychology and criminology. “We want to show how big this problem is and give investigators all of the information we can so they can solve the cases.”

To create the database, Wolf and Briggs-Mathers spent countless hours conducting research on open files concerning missing or murdered Indigenous persons from 1980 to 2020.

They started by finding every piece of information they could about missing person cases – from official lists that came from local police, the FBI or tribal authorities to information provided by community members from where the person went missing and news stories from the media.   

Once they gathered information about the missing person, they then worked to verify the person existed and is still officially missing.

Once that piece was confirmed, they entered all useful, non-personal information into the database in hopes that when authorities use the tool, similarities between cases could be discovered that could potentially link cases together.

No personal information about the cases is entered, according to Briggs-Mathers, because the intent is not to draw attention to specific open cases.

Going through all of the unsolved cases of missing Indigenous people reinforced how important this research is, according to Wolf.

“I saw how much hurt it caused and how much it affected families,” they said. “The more you read about some of these stories, you start to feel a little helpless. But you focus on the project and getting as much information as you can to the authorities because that’s what helps solve the cases.”

While Briggs-Mathers focused on missing people in the U.S., Wolf concentrated on those from Canada. The database currently contains around 3,000 entries and will keep climbing. After Wolf and Briggs-Mathers graduate, students new to the project will continue the work. The database will focus on missing and murdered Indigenous women but cases involving men will be included as well.

Christina Briggs-Mathers
Christina Briggs-Mathers.

Briggs-Mathers said although more data is needed, preliminary patterns are already emerging from their research, including:

  • Violence against Indigenous females tends to come mostly from Indigenous males.
  • Tribal or other Native American law enforcement tends to have more success with these cases than city, county or state police.
  • Especially in more remote or rural areas, there is often information about the crime or the timeline that doesn’t get shared with those investigating the incident.
  • Crimes involving Indigenous women are often reported late, not reported at all, or reported only to be met by resistance from the would-be investigators.

“I’ve seen many cases where a missing person is reported and the police would actually question why they should get involved,” said Wolf, a criminology major.

Wolf and Briggs-Mathers’ research has also shown many reasons why reports of missing Indigenous people are often downplayed, ranging anywhere from not knowing someone is missing because of the remote area where they live to stereotypical reasons that are often applied to the Indigenous population, such as being a runaway or being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

“These cases are often mishandled or not handled at all because of many different factors,” Wolf said. “Oftentimes a case is closed without any type of closure for the family. We’ve barely scratched the surface with our research so far. There is a lot more cases out there and hopefully there’s also a lot more information out there that will help solve the cases. We want this to keep going – for the missing people and their families.”

Madison Wolf
Madison Wolf.

Article by David Jackson, University Communications and Marketing.

Photos by University of Idaho Visual Productions.

Published in April 2023.

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