News Violence

Advocates Urge Better Reporting on Violence Against Native Women as Federal Fixes Stall

Mary Annette Pember

Recent legislation "has no teeth," so Native advocates are keeping an eye on Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which would assist in efforts to track the crisis.

The high rates of missing and murdered Native women have been gaining more public and political attention since Rewire.News began reporting on this issue in 2016. While recent bills at the federal level have yet to gain traction, Native advocates are keeping an eye on Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s (D-TX) Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which would assist in the efforts to track the crisis.

In October 2017, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) introduced Savanna’s Act, which would improve federal crime data collection and support the creation of a standardized protocol for responding to reports of missing and murdered Native women.

The act was named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind of the Spirit Lake tribe in North Dakota. The 22-year-old Fargo woman was abducted and murdered when she was eight months pregnant. A victim of fetal abduction, her daughter survived the attack.

The Associated Press reported earlier this month that in 2017 the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database contained 633 cases of missing Native women. Women’s advocates and tribal leaders, however, maintain that the number of missing as well as murdered Native women are undercounted due to confusing issues over which jurisdiction—state, federal, or tribal—has authority in the investigations. Tribal law enforcement has limited access to NCIC data, compounding the inaccuracy of information.

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There has been no legislative action on Savanna’s Act since a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on October 25, when legislators referred the bill to the committee. Of the 12 co-sponsors of the bill, nine are Democrats and three are Republicans. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) signed on as co-sponsors in 2018.

Native women’s advocates have lauded the act for building awareness of missing and murdered Native women but expressed concern about the lack of government accountability in the bill’s language.

In response to Rewire.News’ question about including directives in Savanna’s Act for the federal government to help develop national protocols on how law enforcement responds to missing and murdered Native women, Abigail McDonough, communications director for Sen. Heitkamp, wrote in an email, “The original bill language called for written standards to respond to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans which would be developed at a local level based on broader national guidance—and this provision is being modified to reinforce even more that specific guidelines for responding to cases of missing persons will be done at a local level.”

“Sen. Heitkamp has been working hard to move Savanna’s Act through the legislative process and raise awareness about the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women through her #NotInvisible campaign,” she added.

“We are super supportive of the bill; her office has worked with us in good faith,” said Caroline LaPorte, senior Native affairs policy adviser with the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC).

“The creation of a national protocol, however, is a key piece of this legislation. We need some sort of baseline response to how cases of missing and murdered Native women are treated,” she added.

Response from Native women’s grassroots advocates was more pointed.

“Savanna’s Act has no teeth. There is no real accountability or detailed responsibilities for the feds. [Savanna’s Act] points out that missing and murdered Native women are a problem, but we already know that; we need action,” said Lissa Yellowbird-Chase, founder of the Sahnish Scouts of North Dakota, a missing person’s advocacy group. The Sahnish Scouts help search for missing persons in the region.

The act calls for an annual report to Congress on the statistics on missing and murdered women as well as recommendations on how to improve data collection. However, there is no funding allocation plan associated with the act.

Other legislation, however, holds hope for providing more attention and resources to addressing not only the problem of missing and murdered Native women, but also violence in Indian Country in general.

The SURVIVE Act (Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment), reintroduced last year by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), amends the Victims of Crime Act to permanently set aside 5 percent of the Crime Victims Fund for tribes to establish programs and services for crime victims. The fund is financed by fines and penalties paid by convicted federal offenders.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) is also co-sponsoring the SURVIVE Act. He helped secure $133 million for tribes from the Crime Victims Fund for survivors of violent and sexual crimes as part of the omnibus spending bill earlier this year.

At the state level, the Montana Tribal Relations Committee plans to bring five bills to the state legislature next year that deal with missing and murdered people. Under Hanna’s Act, named for Hanna Harris, a Northern Cheyenne woman who was murdered on that reservation in 2013, the Montana Department of Justice would hire a missing person specialist to work with local, state, federal, and tribal law enforcement on missing persons cases. The act has bipartisan support and includes a plan to appropriate $100,000 to fund the work.

State Rep. Alan Doane (R-MT), a member of the Tribal Relations Committee, said, “Momentum is moving on this [issue of missing and murdered indigenous women]; we can’t let it die. If it was my mom, sister, or daughter who went missing, I would want law enforcement to take a report and investigate.”

Doane is a rancher in northeastern Montana, near the Bakken oil fields, where sex trafficking has been a problem. “My inner naïve country boy got quite an education when reporters and law enforcement explained that trafficking was happening here, and it is associated with women going missing,” he said to Rewire.News last week during a telephone interview.

Although Native people make up 3.3 percent of Montana’s population, Native women comprise 30 percent of missing reports, according to Doane.

“I don’t think that hiring one person is going to solve the problem, but it’s a step in the right direction,” he added.

Washington state passed a law in 2018 calling for the state patrol to conduct a study on missing and murdered Native women.

Elsewhere, Minnesota legislators are also working on a bill to address the issue.

Tester called on the U.S. Senate in August 2018 to hold a hearing on the issue of missing and murdered Native women.

The Senate is unlikely to hold such a meeting prior to the September 30 end of fiscal year deadline. Although, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) also expires on September 30, funding will be extended through December 7. Funding for the current version of VAWA is included in the stopgap spending bill to prevent a government shutdown that Congress sent to President Trump last week.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) introduced the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2018 in July, which has several measures that expand tribal jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Natives on reservations, including sexual assault, stalking, and trafficking. The act also expands tribal access to NCIC, a key element of tracking missing and murdered Native women.

The bill, however, has no bipartisan support.

Native women’s advocates were surprised by the Republican introduction of the Violence Against Women Extension Act on September 13 by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY). This act would extend current provisions of the expiring VAWA Act for six months, but would include a fiscal rollback especially for tribal programs and others, according to LaPorte.

“This bill is a total slap in the face for Native women,” LaPorte said.

Funding for creating and gathering better data on missing and murdered women and improving investigations by law enforcement are available for allocation by federal and state governments, according to Annita Lucchesi, a cartographer working on collecting and mapping data related to this issue.

“We already have the funding to do this; if our country reduced spending on militarizing law enforcement, we could fund accurate data collection and policing,” she said.

“The feds should create a liaison office dedicated to coordinating data. We don’t need to wait five to ten more years for the results of another study,” she added. “We are not willing to sacrifice more women.”

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