By Senator Catherine Cortez Masto
The many recent stories of abused, murdered and missing Native American women make for grim reading. There’s Ashley Loring HeavyRunner, whose sister, Kimberley, has been hiking through Montana’s fields and mountains for almost two years, calling Ashley’s name.
There’s Ricarda Tillman-Locket, who disappeared in Tennessee over a decade ago, and whose cousin describes her absence as “an open wound that refuses to heal.” There’s Olivia Lone Bear, whose body was finally found submerged in a lake after her brother spent nine months looking for her.
And there are thousands more women—many of them unable to safely speak about their experiences—who are the victims of domestic violence, sex trafficking, rape, stalking, or other forms of aggression. An unbelievable 84 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetimes, according to a recent National Institutes of Justice (NIJ) report. That same report found that Native women are 1.7 times more likely than non-Hispanic white women to have been the target of violence in the last year alone.
Many factors contribute to the epidemic of gendered violence facing America’s tribal members. Of course, the long history of discrimination against Native Americans plays a large role. So do the complicated layers of jurisdiction over tribal lands. And frustratingly, a lack of knowledge about the problem hampers efforts to solve it. We simply do not have enough data.
To close this information gap, I’ve co-sponsored Savanna’s Act, named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was viciously murdered in 2017 in North Dakota. This bipartisan bill requires the Department of Justice to improve reporting of violent crimes against native people and strengthens tribal access to federal crime databases. It also demands that law enforcement at every level create guidelines on how best to keep Native women safe.
And to make the federal government more responsive to the crisis, I’ve also sponsored the Not Invisible Act, along with Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.). The Not Invisible Act instructs the Bureau of Indian Affairs to coordinate government efforts to address the epidemic of violence in Native American communities. And it creates an advisory committee made up of tribal, state, and local law enforcement, service providers, representatives of federal agencies, tribal leaders, and survivors and family members.
These proposals are essential for protecting tribal women. We need to get law enforcement agencies at all levels to prioritize missing Native women and communicate fully with tribal leaders. We need coordination by the federal government to bring together powerful federal and state resources. And we need to strengthen tribes’ abilities to respond to violence and stop the perpetrators.
We can and must act so that the next time a girl goes missing in Indian country, her family will have the tools to find her. Tribal leaders with ideas for protecting their sisters, aunts, and daughters will be able to talk more easily to law enforcement about putting their plans into practice. Researchers studying the problem will have the data they need to figure out how to stop it.
Native American communities must have our support to protect the lives of women and girls and end this epidemic. Ashley HeavyRunner Loring, Ricarda Tillman-Locket, and Olivia Lone Bear must be heard and the lessons from these tragedies learned so their stories never happen again. And girls and women all over the country, from the shores of Pyramid Lake in Nevada to the streets of Nome, Alaska, should know that their government is doing all it can to support them and end the violence they face.
Both the Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act are currently being considered by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.