Native women participate in a shawl ceremony during a vigil for missing and murdered indigenous women at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

'Shameful': Congress fails to take action on missing and murdered Indigenous women

By Acee Agoyo

A candlelight vigil next week will call attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the failure to address what has been called a national crisis.

The January 19 event at the University of Montana in Missoula is being billed as completely led by Indigenous voices. Activists, tribal leaders, Native law students and advocates for Native women will help raise awareness of the countless number of sisters who go missing and murdered.

"This will be a powerful event, a powerful movement," Lauren Small-Rodriguez, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who is serving as facilitator of the vigil, said on social media on Thursday.

The #MMIW / #MMIWG movement appeared to be gaining steam, at least on the national level, in the last session of Congress. On December 6, the Senate unanimously approved a bill known as Savanna's Act to require the federal government, for the first time, to account for the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and to improve coordination among law enforcement agencies.

A week later, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs heard powerful testimony from the sister of Ashley Loring Heavy Runner, a 22-year-old Blackfeet Nation woman who last seen on her tribe's reservation in Montana in June 2017. Her disappearance remains unsolved -- federal officials have provided few answers about her case.

"I believe that the law enforcement did not take Ashley's case seriously, as well as other girls that have gone and missing and murdered in Indian Country," Kimberly Loring Heavy Runner told the committee on December 12.

But Savanna's Act, named in honor of Savanna Marie Greywind, a 22-year-old woman from the Spirit Lake Nation who was murdered after she went missing in North Dakota last year, didn't make it across the finish line in the 115th Congress. That's because a Republican lawmaker who was vacating his seat -- Bob Goodlatte of Virginia -- refused to let it come up for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Today @IndianCommittee met to discuss the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and hear directly from those impacted by the crisis. We were joined by Native women who have been strong voices on this issue. I’m proud to work alongside them to end the violence. #MMIW," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) wrote in a post on Twitter on December 12, 2018. From left: Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Lissalynn Loring of the Blackfeet Nation, Sen. Tom Udall, Congresswoman-elect Deb Haaland and Kimberly Loring Heavy Runner.

“One member standing in the way of finally doing the right thing for Native women, American women, women who are the victims of crime," said Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), a co-sponsor of the legislation. "Shameful."

"Shame on this body for allowing this and not taking this last week of the 115th Congress to finally bring about some justice to these cases," Torres said on the House floor as the session came to a close.

Advocates hope the situation will improve in 116th Congress, which convened on January 3. For starters, the House is now in control of Democrats, including the first two Native women -- Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas).

"Right now, the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women across this country is great," Haaland said during an appearance on CNN's New Day program on Tuesday. "We need to find solutions to things like that."

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

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.

"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.

In addition to failing to pass Savanna's Act, Congress has yet to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which expired last month. A Democratic update had included provisions to address missing and murdered Indigenous women.

North Dakota Rep. Ruth Buffalo (D) filed two bills [HB 1311 and HB 1311] this week to address missing and murdered Indigenous people. Photo: Ruth Ann Buffalo

The 2013 version of VAWA recognizes the "inherent" authority of tribes to arrest, prosecute and sentence non-Indians who abuse their domestic partners. Those provisions remain intact despite the lapse in the overall law. However, funding that tribes depend on to help victims and improve their justice systems has expired.

But while progress has stalled at the national level, Native women who are serving in public office are taking action closer to home. In North Dakota, Rep. Ruth Buffalo (D), a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, has introduced legislation to address the #MMIW crisis and Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein (D), a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, is doing the same in Minnesota.

"The historic number of missing and murdered Indigenous folks is heartbreaking," Kunesh-Podein wrote in a post on Twitter on Thursday. "This is only one way to honor those we’ve lost but not forgotten."

The January 19 #MMIW event will take place in front of the main hall at the University of Montana in Missoula from 12-2pm. The public is invited to attend.

'Shameful' #MMIW #MMIWG
Watch: Rep. Norma Torres (D-California) on Savanna's Act #MMIW MMIWG

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