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Save Our Sisters: MMIW Awareness Walk

Marita Growing Thunder, left, leads a group of supporters for the second year on an 80-mile walk across the Flathead Indian Reservation in March to raise awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Growing Thunder is a student at the University of Montana and the founder of Save Our Sisters: MMIW Awareness, a group created to raise awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women of the U.S. and Canada. 

Are they dead? Who hurt them? Where are they?

All we know for certain is that a disproportionate number of Native American women are missing. In some cases, their bodies have been found but no one has ever been arrested for their murder. So long as they remain missing, or their murderers free to kill again, their families cannot rest. And neither should we.

These cases are at last beginning to pick up badly needed attention, but this attention must be catalyzed into meaningful action. The good news is, there are already several proposals, at both the state and federal level, which would help us take a step toward justice for these women.

As outlined in a series published in the Missoulian Sept. 5 and 6, the latest FBI statistics show that at least 633 Native American women are actively missing, and that 1.8 percent of the nation’s ongoing missing cases are for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, even though they make up only 0.8 percent of the U.S. population.

That’s the big picture. Look closely at particular Indian reservations, and some numbers show that more than 80 percent of female residents will experience violence at some time in their lives. The U.S. Justice Department has found that more than half have experienced sexual violence, and on certain reservations, their murder rate is 10 times the national average.

In Montana, the state Department of Justice reported in 2017 that 30 percent of missing girls and women in Montana are Native Americans. They accounted for 22 of the 72 missing women cases in the state, despite constituting only 3.3 percent of Montana’s population.

The first real volley of intended solutions to this heartrending national problem, as well as other crime-related issues in Indian Country, was launched in 2010 with the Tribal Law and Order Act, which sought to improve coordination across law enforcement agencies while boosting the number of officers authorized to carry out investigations and bring perpetrators to justice. Yet eight years later, only a handful of tribes are receiving any kind of federal assistance. The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation are the only tribes in Montana participating in the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information launched in 2015. In fact, so far, a total of only 47 tribes are sharing information to this important database – out of 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States.

Clearly, too little is being done, too slowly, to help find missing Native American women. But Montana’s senators are among those working to find solutions.

Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that more tribes needed to be able to access the federal database, and urged support for a resolution to designate May 15 as a National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. A bipartisan group, including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, helped pass that resolution.

Daines also voted for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, which includes an important expansion authorizing tribal officers to prosecute non-tribal members for domestic violence and sexual assault. Then-Senator Jeff Sessions, now U.S. Attorney General and head of the Department of Justice charged with enforcing the act, voted against it. The Violence Against Women Act is set to expire this fall if it is not renewed again.

More recently, last month Tester requested that the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs schedule a hearing dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women. Such a hearing should certainly include discussion of Savanna’s Act, a bill introduced about a year ago by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, that would expand tribes’ access to crime databases, streamline the process for reporting and investigating cases, and require the Congress receive information on the number of cases in annual reports.

Another bill introduced just this summer, the End Trafficking of Native Americans Act, has also been introduced by Heitkamp along with fellow Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Its aim is, basically, to improve coordination between federal agencies.

The real money is in the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment (SURVIVE) Act. This legislation, introduced by a Republican senator from North Dakota, would set aside 5 percent of the money in a federal fund for crime victims to help tribes establish their own services for reservation victims. That way, a rape survivor living in a remote reservation community wouldn’t have to drive hundreds of miles to the nearest crisis center before providing time-sensitive evidence and getting critical help.

With the start of the 2019 Legislature, Montana will also have several opportunities to tackle this problem on its own. Last Friday, the state legislative State-Tribal Relations Committee got the ball rolling with a package of five recommendations for the Legislature to consider. Each is designed to tackle an aspect of the epidemic of missing persons, human trafficking and violence against women in Indian Country.

One of the most significant of these bill proposals is called Hanna’s Act, named for Hanna Harris, whose body was discovered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation after she was murdered in 2013. The act would allow the Montana Department of Justice to participate in missing person cases involving tribal members, and designate a liaison to aid communication between families and investigators. It’s a solid place to start.

Montana’s legislators must start taking a stronger hand in ensuring that state law enforcement agencies are equipped to provide as much assistance to victims of violence as possible. The bulk of the responsibility, however, falls on federal and tribal shoulders.

Both of Montana’s senators are members of the Indian Affairs Committee, and as such, should team up to push for clear reporting and data collection guidelines accessible to every tribe in America. There should also be a more straightforward process for swiftly determining jurisdiction, and for streamlining communication across federal, state and tribal agencies.

Every reservation resident in Montana ought to know exactly who to call for help in case a loved one goes missing. Those reports should be taken seriously, followed up immediately, and be handled in a way that leaves no doubt that Native American girls and women are valued just as much as any other human being.

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