No Humans Involved: The Dehumanization of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

by Alida Weidensee*

No Humans Involved. This was the unofficial term used by members of the Los Angeles Police Department and other public officials to describe the murders of people of color and those in other communities deemed nonhuman.[1] The use of this term came to light in 1992, following the acquittal of LAPD officers caught on video beating Rodney King.[2] The process of dehumanization inherent in the term, first identified with encounters between law enforcement and Black Americans, [3] was used in reference to other marginalized groups as well. No humans involved (NHI) has been used alongside terms like “misdemeanor murders” and “prostitute murders” to minimize the killing of women sex workers.[4] While the term NHI sparked controversy in its own time,[5] the attitude that the term represents remains pervasive in the present and finds its parallel in the treatment of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). In this post, I will begin by giving a brief background on the theory surrounding the term, and then place it in the broader context of dehumanization that occurs in MMIWG cases.

No Humans Involved and the Process of Dehumanization

The use of the term no humans involved (NHI) both reflected the public attitude toward marginalized groups, and allowed law enforcement to minimize their murders. As Sylvia Wynter wrote in her groundbreaking work, No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues, the dehumanization of young, unemployed, Black males allowed them to be subjected to the “genocidal effects [of] incarceration and elimination . . . by ostensibly normal, and everyday means.”[6] Similarly, Norma Jean Almodovar, a former LAPD officer and prominent advocate for sex worker rights, has argued that “[t]erms like these make it clear that those of us who choose, for whatever reason, to engage in commercial sex are no longer considered a part of the human race.”[7] While the term NHI came to light in its use by law enforcement and other public officials, media narratives and educational systems which maintain racial hierarchies have each been identified as contributing to the process of dehumanization.[8] Discounting the violence against marginalized groups through the denial of their humanity allows the narrative of law enforcement as necessary defenders of the innocent to remain uncriticized.[9]

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: Dehumanization and Violence

The history of dehumanization of Indigenous women is rooted in colonialism and is reflected in the current high rates of violence.[10] A Department of Justice Report found that 84.3% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and 56.1% have experienced sexual violence.[11] Due to underreporting, the actual number of women who experience violence may be even higher.[12] Further, most Indigenous women who experience rape are raped by non-Native men.[13] Indigenous women and girls are rendered particularly vulnerable through dismissive attitudes toward the violence that they experience, a lack of resources, and jurisdictional issues. Each of these obstacles stands in the way of protecting Indigenous women and girls, and in their own way, each stems from the same type of dehumanization present in cases labeled NHI.

Law enforcement and the media regularly push narratives that dehumanize missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Coverage of these crimes frequently includes “narratives of disposability and brokenness”[14] which treat violence as an exclusively tribal problem,[15] and which attribute the deaths of Indigenous women and girls to their own “risky behaviour.”[16]  However, it is not only active narratives which contribute to this dehumanization; rather, activists argue that lack of media coverage and lack of data create three disappearances: “in life, in the media, and in the data.”[17] The process of dehumanization also appears in the continued disregard for victims by law enforcement agencies, which have been frequently criticized for their lack of response to violence against Indigenous women.[18] In this way, law enforcement and the media exhibit the same attitude toward these women as they have in previous cases labeled no humans involved.

Jurisdictional issues are also significant obstacles to justice.[19] Decisions such as Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe,[20] which prevent tribes from exercising jurisdiction over most non-Native offenders,[21] are part of a broader dehumanization rooted in colonialism. In stripping tribes of their autonomy, the government created a gap in remedies for victims while denying the collective humanity of their communities.

Lack of resources and infrastructure for the prosecution and investigation of these crimes represent a further denial of the victims’ humanity. Federal prosecutors frequently decline to prosecute cases of sexual violence committed against Indigenous women and girls.[22] Even when tribes have jurisdiction, the lack of prosecutors and resources for investigation often results in the dismissal of cases.[23] The allocation of resources provides a window into which issues the government finds important. By failing to allocate adequate resources to protection of and remedies for Indigenous women and girls, the government reinforces their perceived lack of humanity.

Fighting Against Dehumanization

Growing recognition of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has sparked a movement to fight their dehumanization. Both victims themselves and their families have taken action to assert their personhood and the humanity of the women taken from them.[24] Following the murder investigation of Gabby Petito, there have been attempts to draw attention to the disparate treatment of cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.[25] The passage of Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act represents a step toward recognizing the humanity of victims through improved coordination in data collection and the creation of mechanisms for input and recommendations from victims and their families. [26] However, commenters have noted that these actions fall far short of fully addressing the problem.[27] This legislation will not resolve the dehumanization of victims and Indigenous peoples more broadly. Addressing that issue will involve taking a deeper look at law enforcement, the media, and all those who are currently allowed to decide which crimes have no humans involved.

*Alida Weidensee, University of Minnesota Law School Class of 2023, JLI Vol. 40 Staff Member

[1]  Sylvia Wynter, No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues, 1 Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the      21st Century 42, 42 (1994); See also Diana Cabili, “NHI” Condones Violence Against Prostitutes, in 9 Reflections 158, 158 (2010); Johnathon Briggs, The Weight of It All, Stanford Mag. (July 7, 2020),

[2] Wynter, supra note 1, at 42; No Humans Involved, Hammer Museum, (last visited Oct. 31, 2021).

[3] See Wynter, supra note 1, at 42.

[4] Cabili, supra note 1, at 167.

[5] Sylvie Drake, ‘MWI’ a Searing Wake-Up Call, L.A. Times (Jan. 11, 1993), (reviewing an art exhibition criticizing the use of the term no humans involved).

[6] Wynter, supra note 1, at 45 (emphasis in original).

[7] Norma Jean Almodovar, For Their Own Good: The Results of the Prostitution Laws as Enforced by Cops, Politicians and Judges, 10 Hastings Women’s L.J. 119, 121 (1999).

[8] Wynter, supra note 1, at 53–54 (discussing the impact of the humanities and social sciences disciplines on racial hierarchies); Cabili, supra note 1, at 166–67 (describing the combined impact of police and media narratives).

[9] Tyler Wall, The Police Invention of Humanity: Notes on the “Thin Blue Line”, 16 Crime Media Culture 319, 322 (Dec. 2020) (“[T]he idea at the heart of TBL [the Thin Blue Line] is that the most routine mode of violent state prerogative—the police power—is imagined as always a defense of civilization, which at once means the ‘human species.’”) (emphasis in original).

[10] Megan Mallonee, Selective Justice: A Crisis of Missing and Murdered Alaska Native Women, 38 ALASKA L. REV. 93, 109 (2021); Luhui Whitebear, VAWA Reauthorization of 2013 and the Continued Legacy of Violence Against Indigenous Women: A Critical Outsider Jurisprudence Perspective, 9 U. Miami Race & Soc. Just. L. Rev. 75, 81 (2019).

[11] André B. Rosay, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men 43 (2016),

[12] Mallonee, supra note 10, at 100.

[13] Mallonee, supra note 10, at 100; Joseph Mantegani, Slouching Towards Autonomy: Reenvisioning Tribal Jurisdiction, Native American Autonomy, and Violence Against Women in Indian Country, 111 J. CRIM. L. & CRIMINOLOGY 313, 315–16 (2020).

[14] Josephine L. Savarese, Challenging Colonial Norms and Attending to Presencing in Stories of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, 29 CAN. J. WOMEN & L. 157, 160 (2017).

[15] Mallonee, supra note 10, at 100.

[16] Savarese, supra note 14, at 164.

[17] Seattle Indian Health Board, Urban Indian Health Institute, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls 2 (2018),

[18] See, e.g., Mallonee, supra note 10, at 96.

[19] Mantegani, supra note 13, at 315–16.

[20] 435 U.S. 191 (1978).

[21] Mantegani, supra note 13, at 319.

[22] Mallonee, supra note 10, at 101–02.

[23] Mantegani, supra note 13, at 317, 345–46.

[24] See, e.g., Savarese, supra note 14, at 173–74.

[25] See, e.g., Ruth Hopkins, What about the Missing Women Who Look Like Me?, The Cut (Oct. 1, 2021),

[26] Mallonee, supra note 10, at 117.

[27] See, e.g., Mantegani, supra note 13, at 348.