Student Photographer Captures Plight of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Cal State Fullerton student aims to draw attention to this human-rights crisis 

Fullerton- Nicole Merton traveled to tribal areas in California and surrounding states to tell the story of missing and murdered indigenous women through photographs of more than 40 women and children with red handprints over their faces — a symbol of solidarity with the women.

More than 5,000 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing in 2016, according to a recent study by the Urban Indian Health Institute. In addition, murder was cited as the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women, with rates of violence on reservations up to 10 times higher than the national average.

The harrowing statistics “floored” Merton, a 2021 graduate, and inspired her senior project focusing on the human-rights crisis: “Here… Our Voices, Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Movement.”

Valentina-by Nicole Merton CSUF
“Valentina,” a photograph by Cal State Fullerton graduate Nicole Merton, captures the plight of the more than 5,000 reported missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. CSUF

“Through this project, I hope to reflect and remember the Indigenous women who have been lost or are still missing,” explained Merton. “I asked each woman to write a personal statement sharing their stories, memories and connections to MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women).

“I wanted to bring awareness to an issue that has not been talked about much,” continued Merton, who heard about the rising international movement a year ago. “Every story I read, every podcast I heard made me sad, then angry, which pushed me to want to make a difference.

Nicole-Merton-Our Voices author-photographer
Cal State Fullerton graduate Nicole Merton captures the plight of the more than 5,000 reported missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in her photographs of herself and more than 40 other women. CSUF

“My vision for this series is to touch lives and prove that you can stand up, speak up and that one day this epidemic will stop.”

Merton recently learned she is of Mescalero Apache ancestry herself, which further fueled her interest in the subject.

“My father was never in my life, but I found out about my heritage through a DNA test and by connecting with uncles on my paternal side of the family,” she shared. “Since then, I’ve been immersing myself in my culture, trying to learn everything I can.”

About Cal State Fullerton: The largest university in the CSU and the only campus in Orange County, Cal State Fullerton offers 110 degree programs, and Division 1 athletics. Recognized as a national model for supporting student success, CSUF excels with innovative, high-impact educational practices, including faculty-student collaborative research, study abroad and competitive internships. Our vibrant and diverse campus is a primary driver of workforce and economic development in the region. CSUF is a top public university known for its success in supporting first-generation and underrepresented students, and preparing all students to become leaders in the global marketplace. Our It Takes a Titan campaign, a five-year $200 million comprehensive fundraising initiative, prioritizes investments in academic innovation, student empowerment, campus transformation and community enrichment. Visit