A pathway toward ending the legacy of violence against Native women

ICT OPINION

For years now, we’ve known that Native American communities are facing a crisis of missing, murdered and trafficked American Indians and Alaska Natives

U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) & Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)

November marks National Native American Heritage Month, a time to honor the rich history, immense diversity and important contributions of Native people, while also acknowledging our country’s dark history toward tribal nations. 

As representatives of states with vibrant tribal communities, we wanted to share how we’re working together to help respond to the inordinate violence that Native American women and girls face.

For years now, we’ve known that Native American communities are facing a crisis of missing, murdered and trafficked American Indians and Alaska Natives—in particular women and children.

One of those victims was Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Nation who was brutally murdered by her neighbor in August 2017. She was only 22 years old—and eight months pregnant—at the time of her death. 

This heartbreaking tragedy drew widespread attention upon a frightening reality that’s been going on for generations: more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women experience violence in their lifetimes, and on some reservations, and in Alaska, are murdered at a rate more than ten times the national average.

It’s unacceptable that so many Native women are being taken and that their families have failed to receive justice. Homicide is the third leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls under the age of 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

But conflicts over jurisdiction and gaps in sharing information have hampered investigations into those deaths and denied closure to too many families. To make the problem worse, we still lack sufficient data on the crimes, and what data exists isn’t always shared. In 2018, an Urban Indian Health Institute survey found that out of the 5,712 Alaska Native and American Indian women and girls known to be missing, only 116 were registered in the Department of Justice database. 

The federal government must do far more to address violent crimes against Native women.

While countless lives have been lost over the years, they were never forgotten. That is why in January 2019 we re-introduced Savanna’s Act, originally authored by our former colleague Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. In April of that same year, we introduced the Not Invisible Act, with the goal of dedicating even more effort to combatting the violence against Native American women and girls. 

After the unanimous passage of both bills in the Senate and House this year, President Trump signed them into law in October, making them the first legislation specifically addressing this epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

With Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act, we are making real progress in seeking justice for the families of those missing, murdered and trafficked, and in curbing violence against Native women. Both laws require federal agencies to improve coordination with local partners and ensure tribal governments have the federal backing to address a crisis that has been under-resourced for far too long.

The memory of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind lives on in the law that bears her name. Savanna’s Act will create standardized, yet region-specific guidelines for responding to cases of missing or murdered Native Americans, with meaningful consultation from tribes. 

These guidelines will go a long way to making sure that the different local, state, federal, and tribal law enforcement involved in responding to these tragic cases actually work together effectively. The law also requires that data on missing or murdered Native Americans finally be collected and reported to Congress, along with recommendations for improving the quality of that data. Just as important, it makes sure that tribes have access to relevant federal law enforcement databases essential for fighting violent crime.

The Not Invisible Act requires the Secretary of the Interior to appoint a person within the Bureau of Indian Affairs whose job it will be to make sure all federal agencies are actually working together, not in agency silos, to reduce violent crime against Native Americans and prosecute the perpetrators. The legislation also recognizes the historical failures of the federal government in interacting with our tribal nations by ensuring that tribes have a voice at the table. 

The law establishes a commission starting in the spring of 2021—made up of law enforcement, tribal leaders, federal partners, service providers, family members of victims, and survivors—to make recommendations on what more must be done to combat the epidemic of missing, murdered and trafficked Native Americans.

Our work is far from done, and more focus and determination will be needed in the coming weeks, months and years to ensure that we remain on track to curb this epidemic.

The signing of the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act into law by President Trump gives us hope. It means that Native communities finally have federal support to more effectively protect women and no longer have to fight this crisis alone. We thank Senator Heitkamp for her leadership, and we are grateful to Native American community leaders for their tireless advocacy over the years. Families of victims deserve answers; today is the beginning of the end of the legacy of violence against Native women and girls and the start of seeking justice for countless lives.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or trafficking, resources are available to you. 

Op-ed by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) 

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