Whose Kuleana Is It? Addressing the Missing and Murdered Native Hawaiian Women, Girls, and Māhū Crisis Through Forensic Anthropology and Community Collaboration

Source: Nikki Cristobal and Ariel Gruenthal-Rankin, PhD, University of Hawai'i - West O'ahu
Justice Talks

Although the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) has risen in public consciousness in recent years, Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) people are often left out of MMIR studies, leaving their experiences poorly understood.  A 2021 state taskforce began the task of examining the Missing and Murdered Native Hawaiian Women, Girls, and Mahu (MMNHWGM) crisis. In Hawaii, 10.5% of females identify as Kanaka Maoli, but more than 25% of missing girls are Kanaka Maoli.1 The intersection of racism, colonialism, militarism, sex trafficking, and tourism makes the MMNHWGM crisis uniquely challenging.

The 2022 Missing and Murdered Native Hawaiian Women and Girls Taskforce Report identified several difficulties to conducting MMNHWGM work including: (1) lack of disaggregated data on social race, with Native Hawaiian women and girls combined with "Asian and Pacific Islander" peoples; (2) lack of uniform data collection across jurisdictions; (3) jurisdictional resistance to sharing even basic case information; and (4) a lack of publicly accessible historic data through NamUS. As a result, the report generated by researchers on the epidemic likely underestimates the scale of the crisis.

Anthropologists recognize that community stakeholders rely on diverse forms of knowledge. MMNHWGM researchers need consistent data across jurisdictions that span decades; however, law enforcement has expressed confusion about which data are significant for research. Similarly, it may be unclear to law enforcement why factors like disaggregating social race data or recording more inclusive gender data is necessary, whereas, for community members, a loved one's intersectional identity is deeply relevant to the circumstances of their lives and deaths. Utilizing our holistic training, forensic anthropologists can bridge the gaps among Indigenous and other community members, researchers, and medicolegal stakeholders. We can assist in communicating community needs to law enforcement, advocate and consult with families affected by gender-based violence, and create improved systems to collect and analyze data on the MMNHWGM crisis.

A collaborative project, including community stakeholders, medicolegal representatives, and the Community Forensic Laboratory at University of Hawaii-West Oahu, aims to build a publicly accessible database for Hawaii. Our project begins with community transparency and accountability to better account for all people who go missing. This includes Kanaka Maoli girls who are more likely to be labeled as "runaways'' than missing persons and Mahu people whose gender often goes unreflected in law enforcement records. This database may also generate connections to identifications of unidentified cold cases within the state. Finally, NamUs cases do not record all known missing cases in Hawaii and are not publicly accessible once archived. Our project will compile retrospective data to identify factors leading to the structural inequities and violence that underlie the MMNHWGM crisis.

This community-driven project is led with a shared sense of kuleana (responsibility; privilege weighed equally with burden). We emphasize that collaborative, culturally informed work in forensics results in stronger science, restructuring power dynamics and generating meaningful results for our diverse stakeholders. In this way, we as anthropologists may help support equity and justice for Indigenous communities in the face of violence.

1. ​Cristobal, N. (2022). Holoi a nalo wahine 'oiwi: Missing and murdered Native Hawaiian Women and Girls Task Force Report (Vol. 1; pp. 1–22). Office of Hawaiian Affairs; Hawai'i State Commission on the Status of Women.​https://www.oha.org/wp-content/uploads/MMNHWG-Report_Web.pdf.




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