For generations, the deaths and disappearances of Native American women and girls have haunted Indian country. Despite the alarming number of indigenous women who vanish each year from tribal land, rural communities and cities, there is no official accounting of the murdered and missing.
Now, amid a growing demand for answers in the era of #MeToo, political momentum is building on Capitol Hill to finally address these tragedies – and to prevent future ones.
Earlier this year, Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican of Alaska, reintroduced Savanna’s Act, legislation she describes an “essential first step” toward combating the epidemic of violence against Native women.
“When we think about justice in this country, we’ve been told … that Lady Justice is blind,” Murkowski told the Guardian in an interview outside the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. “But too often our nation’s first people, the Native American families, have felt that justice was not there for them when their daughter, their mother, their aunt was murdered or went missing.”
Hanging from the trees lining the museum’s walkway, red dresses in all sizes and shades, fluttered gently in spring breeze – part of a public art exhibition memorializing the estimated thousands of missing and murdered Native women and girls. The display was a visceral reminder of the “invisible” crisis.
Native American women living on tribal land are killed at alarmingly high rates – on some reservations they are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average, according to research by the National Institute of Justice. And more than half of indigenous women report experiencing sexual or domestic violence at some point in their lives.
Experts point to several reasons why these cases go largely unresolved and, too often, unnoticed: the “jurisdictional maze” of overlapping authority and laws that determine how a case is reported and investigated; a lack of resources to respond to this crisis; a dark legacy of violence against Native women and a collective indifference to their fate.
There is no federal, comprehensive database tracking the number of indigenous women who are kidnapped or killed. Some cases are never reported while others are not recorded properly.
In 2016, 5,712 Native American and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing to the National Crime Information Center, but only 116 were officially recorded in the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, according to a groundbreaking report on the issue released in 2018 by the Urban Indian Health Institute.
The result, the report’s authors write, is that missing and murdered Native women “disappear not once, but three times – in life, in the media, and in the data.”
Savanna’s Act aims to better understand the scale of the crisis by improving and increasing data collection between tribal communities and local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
As drafted, the bill would expand tribal access to federal crime databases, direct the US Department of Justice to create new guidelines for handling violent crimes against indigenous women, and require annual reporting on the number of missing and murdered Native women.
“There is so much that we still don’t know,” Murkowski said. With official data, she said law enforcement officials and policymakers will have a clearer picture of the crisis and be better equipped to respond.
The act is named in memory of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old pregnant woman from the Spirit Lake Nation who was abducted and brutally murdered by her neighbor in Fargo, North Dakota, in 2017. Her unborn child was cut from her womb and survived.
Her death sparked public outcry and months later, the then Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat of North Dakota, introduced Savanna’s Act. The bill unanimously passed the Senate in 2018 but was blocked by the outgoing chairman of the US House judiciary committee, Republican Bob Goodlatte.
After the bill stalled, Murkowski promised Heitkamp, who had lost her re-election and would not be returning to the Senate, that she would take up the mantle in the new Congress. In January, the Alaska senator reintroduced the bill with Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat of Nevada.
Norberta Greywind, LaFontaine-Greywind’s mother, said in a statement provided through the family’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, that she is “100% supportive of Savanna’s Act and anything that can be done to find our missing people”.
Murkowski expressed confidence that Savanna’s Act will pass this time around, pointing to the “momentum” building on Capitol Hill around this issue. It has 14 co-sponsors almost equally divided between the parties and has received support from administration officials who are also working on the issue.
This month, the House reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, which contains a number of protections for Native American women. Meanwhile, Murkowski has joined the Democratic senator John Tester as a co-sponsor of the Not Invisible Act of 2019, which is aimed at combating sex trafficking among Native women. She is also working with the Democratic senator Patty Murray on legislation that would improve critical care for victims of sexual violence.
Last month, the House subcommittee on indigenous peoples of the United States held an emotional hearing on the issue of missing and murdered women. A panel of all Native American women testified before the subcommittee. And for the first time in US history, one of the lawmakers listening from behind the dais was a Native American woman, freshman congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico.
“Until now, the United States Congress has been largely absent in terms of fulfilling its trust duty and obligation to protect Native women from violence,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, legal counsel to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and one of the experts who testified at the hearing. “The fact that members of Congress for the first time in United States history are talking about the issue is a step forward from where we are now.”
But it is just a step. The group is pushing lawmakers to expand tribal jurisdiction to prosecute non-Native American people who are accused of committing violent crimes against tribal members. Currently the authority only extends to certain crimes.
“These are all pieces of the puzzle,” said Michelle Demmert, a law and policy consultant at the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center and the chief justice of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska supreme court. “We need a comprehensive approach to mitigating the epidemic of violence that has been – and continues to be – committed against us.”
The situation is dire in Alaska, where Demmert said it can take hours or even days for law enforcement officers to respond to a disappearance or death in remote parts of the state. She is currently working with local leaders to develop protocols to mobilize a community response when a woman goes missing.
Theirs are the stories Murkowski carries with her to the Senate floor.
“It’s been emotional. It’s been really hard to hear the stories,” Murkowski said. She recalled attending the funeral of 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr, who was murdered in Kotzebue, Alaska, last year.
“You hear her story, you hear it shared along with, unfortunately, so many others,” Murkowski said. “It is hard. But what must be even harder is to know that this has happened and to have those families feel like people have given up on them. It is another crime visited on the initial crime.”