Amanda Dakota Webster is seen in a photo shared on social media. The 26-year-old Navajo woman was murdered in Kentucky on December 1, 2018.

Hearing scheduled on missing and murdered in Indian Country

By Acee Agoyo

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will be confronting the "silent crisis" of missing and murdered people at a hearing next week.

Advocates have been calling attention to the issue for years. But little has been done on the national level to find out why Native people of all ages, genders and backgrounds seem to go missing and murdered on a regular basis.

"It doesn’t matter if you are living on a reservation, in a village, or in an urban area, many of the same historical and institutional problems that have led to the appalling MMIWG rates remain," Esther Lucero, the CEO of the Seattle Indian Health Board, said upon the release of a groundbreaking report last month that looked into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in urban areas.

The latest known case occurred over the weekend. Amanda Dakota Webster, a 26-year-old mother of three from the Navajo Nation, was murdered in Kentucky, where she had gone to support her family by working in the construction industry.

"He brutally murdered her, stabbing her multiple times," one of Webster's close friends, who also worked in construction, wrote on social media.

Authorities quickly arrested a suspect in connection with Webster's death. But justice remains elusive for many victims -- according to the landmark MMIWG report, a large number of cases of missing and murdered Native people remain unsolved. Efforts to understand the situation are hindered by inadequate documentation.

"Seventy-one percent of American Indian and Alaska Natives live in urban areas, yet, accurate data does not exist regarding the rates of violence among this population,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, the director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, which released the report on November 14.

Small steps are being taken to address the crisis. On the same day the report was released, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved S.1942, also known as Savanna's Act.

The bill is named in honor of Savanna Marie Greywind, a 22-year-old woman from the Spirit Lake Nation who was brutally murdered after she went missing in North Dakota last year. One person pleaded guilty in connection with her death but a second was acquitted of conspiring to murder her after a trial in September.

Greywind was eight months pregnant at the time of her disappearance. Her unborn child miraculously survived and is in the care of her father and his family.

"The crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women is too often often unknown outside of Indian Country and too often forgotten," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), the sponsor of Savanna's Act.

If the bill becomes law, the bill would require the Department of Justice, for the first time, to provide annual reports on the numbers of Native women who go missing and murdered. It also requires the government to improve access to national databases to ensure that such cases don't fall through the cracks.

"We simply don't have a grasp of the extent of the problem that we are dealing with," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a co-sponsor of S.1942. "When are talking about missing and murdered indigenous women, part of the problem is knowing just how big it is."

The missing and murdered: 'We as Native women are hunted'

Existing data indicates that 5,712 indigenous women and girls were reported missing as of 2016. But the Urban Indian Health Institute discovered that only 116 such cases were logged into NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

“We owe it to these women and girls to fully identify the scope of the problem,” said Annita Luccesi, the co-author of the MMIWG report.

When it comes to murders of indigenous people, some data exists. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native women suffer from the second-highest homicide rate. Nearly half of the victims were murdered by an intimate partner.

But even that information is limited in scope. Only 18 states provided data for the report, which covered the years between 2003 and 2014. For example, Montana and South Dakota, where high-profile cases of missing and murdered Native women are frequently reported in the media, do not currently submit their data.

"This bill will improve information sharing between law enforcement agencies, establish response protocols, and increase data collection on crimes committed across Indian Country," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) said of S.1942.

Despite movement on the committee level, Savanna's Act has not yet been taken up by the full Senate. Action must take place before the end of the 115th Congress or it will have to be reintroduced when the next session starts in January.

A candlelight vigil is taking place for Amanda Dakota Webster on Wednesday evening at 6pm at the Nazarene Church in Cameron, Arizona. She left behind three boys -- a 10-year-old and two younger children, including one who is just 3 months old.

Funeral services are scheduled for 1pm on Friday at the Norvel Owens Mortuary in Flagstaff. Webster will be laid to rest at the Citizens Cemetery at 2pm.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on the missing and murdered takes place next Wednesday, December 12. A witness list hasn't been posted online.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice
Oversight Hearing on “Missing and Murdered: Confronting the Silent Crisis in Indian Country.” (December 12, 2018)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Arrest made in connection with murder of Navajo Nation woman (December 4, 2018)
Native woman missing after going to casino nearly two months ago (November 26, 2018)
Indian Country legislative agenda falls behind in the Trump era (November 19, 2018)
Graham Lee Brewer: Report shines light on missing and murdered sisters (November 19, 2018)
Cronkite News: Native women hold annual prayer run in Arizona (November 19, 2018)
Albert Bender: Young Hoopa woman found murdered in California (November 16, 2018)
Cronkite News: Report looks at missing and murdered sisters (November 15, 2018)
Lakota woman remains in critical condition after brutal attack (November 13, 2018)
Bill to address missing and murdered sisters scheduled for action (November 12, 2018)
Lakota woman fighting for her life after brutal beating (November 9, 2018)
Another tribe asserts authority over non-Indians as VAWA remains in limbo (November 2, 2018)
Bill planned to address missing and murdered Native women (October 11, 2018)
Hearing addresses high rates of violence against Native women (October 4, 2018)
'We need action': Native women seek solutions on Capitol Hill (September 20, 2018)
Deleana OtherBull: Native women deserve to be safe (September 18, 2018)
Tribes consulted on first-ever count of missing Native women (September 17, 2018)
Associated Press runs series on 'Missing in Indian Country' (September 5, 2018)
The missing and murdered: 'We as Native women are hunted' (August 27, 2018)
Associated Press runs series on 'Missing in Indian Country' (September 5, 2018)
'Nine months of looking': Olivia Lone Bear's body recovered on reservation (August 6, 2018)
'Native women can't wait': Bill expands tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians (July 26, 2018)
'No more stolen sisters!': Events raise awareness of the missing and murdered (May 9, 2018)
Mary Annette Pember: Little data on missing and murdered Native women and girls (May 8, 2018)
Graham Lee Brewer: Change comes too slow for missing and murdered sisters (May 7, 2018)
Mary Annette Pember: New tool tracks missing and murdered indigenous women (May 1, 2018)
Senate declares May 5 as day of awareness for missing and murdered sisters (April 26, 2018)
Mary Annette Pember: Efforts grow for missing and murdered sisters (April 2, 2018)
Sacred run raises awareness of missing and murdered Native women (January 31, 2018)
Trending in News
More Headlines