Indianz: Senate declares May 5 as day of awareness for missing and murdered sisters

Efforts continue in the nation’s capital to raise awareness of the large numbers of Native women and girls who go missing and murdered every year.

The work is both symbolic and substantive, reflecting years of advocacy by Native women to call attention to high rates of domestic violence, victimization and other crimes. Their efforts are being boosted by key members of Congress from both parties.

“The epidemic of missing and murdered Native women and girls has tragically affected families and communities throughout Indian Country, including those in North Dakota,”  Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the  Senate Committee on Indian Affairs said on Thursday. “By standing together and raising awareness, we can promote solutions to prevent and combat the exploitation and violence that many Native women face.”

Hoeven’s remarks came after the Senate approved S.Res.401 on Wednesday. The measure, for the second year in a row, designates May 5 as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls.

The day was chosen to honor the memory of Hanna Harris, a young citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who went missing from her reservation in Montana in 2013. She was found murdered a few days later,  Native Sun News Today reported at the time.

May 5 was Hanna’s birthday. She was killed only two months after she had turned 21.

“Too often in Indian country and Alaska Native villages indigenous women are disappearing and nothing is done,” Jana Walker, the director of the Indian Law Resource Center’s Safe Women, Strong Nations project, said after S.Res.401 was introduced in February.

“These disappearances aren’t being responded to in a serious, timely way and there’s a lack of data about the numbers of indigenous women that are going missing,” Walker continued.

In one step toward addressing the situation, S.Res.401 acknowledges a recent study which showed that Native women suffer from the second-highest homicide rate in the United States. Yet it also notes that “little data” exist on the actual numbers of Native women and girls who go missing every year.

“Tragically, Hanna Harris is just one of the many native women who go missing or are senselessly murdered,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana), who has  sponsored the #MMIW resolution for two years in a row. “We must do more to call attention to this epidemic and protect vulnerable communities.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), another member of the Indian Affairs Committee, has been pushing the federal government to account for the lack of information. Last October, she unveiled a bill to honor the memory of Savanna Marie Greywind, a young citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation who went missing in North Dakota just two months prior. 

Savanna was only 22 years old — and eight months pregnant. Though her baby miraculously survived, the expecting mother was murdered.

“It’s time for Congress to recognize this epidemic and take action to prevent these stories and find out just how many stories there really are,” Heitkamp said as she introduced S.1942, also known as Savanna’s Act. “It’s time to give voice to these voiceless women.”

As part of her efforts, Heitkamp cited a previously unreported figure that comes from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a federal database. As of 2016, she said there were 5,712 cases of missing Native women and girls, with 125 in North Dakota alone. Heitkamp believes the true number is much higher. 

Though Savanna’s Act awaits action on the committee level, the 115th Congress has seen other substantive, bipartisan achievements. Among them was the passage of S.772, the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act.

The measure is named in honor of  Ashlynne Mike, an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered on the Navajo Nation in May 2016. Her tribe lacked an emergency notification system that could have quickly alerted others about her disappearance. 

Pamela Foster and Gary Mike, Ashlynne’s parents, used the tragedy to advocate for Indian Country. The bill, which President Donald Trump for signed two weeks ago, ensures that tribes — for the first time — can receive federal funds to implement AMBER Alert systems on their homelands.

“This is great news for Native American children and their families across our country,” Foster declared after S.772 became law on April 13. The measure “protects Native American children and gives their families the resources of the AMBER Alert program,” she said.

“Ashlynne’s memory lives on with this new law, and her family has ensured that her death would not be in vain,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona), who sponsored the House version of the bill, added in a post on Twitter.

Funding needs also drove another success, albeit a temporary one. The  $1.3 trillion #Omnibus spending bill, which became law last month, includes a 3 percent tribal set-aside from a national program that helps victims of crime.

According to current data, fewer than 1 percent from the Crime Victims Fund was going to Indian Country. So the set-aside, which translates to about $133 million, represents a significant boost for tribes and service providers in the current fiscal year.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers hopes to make the funding more permanent with passage of S.1870, the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act. The bill, which awaits action on the Senate floor, offers a 5 percent tribal set-aside. Members of both parties are supporting similar efforts in the House as well.

“I’m sure zero isn’t the number. Just saying,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) told tribal leaders recently, underscoring how little of the funds make it to Indian Country. The retiring member of Congress is co-sponsor of H.R.4608, a companion version of the funding bill, also known as the SURVIVE Act.

In addition to missing and murdered women and girls and helping victims of crime, Native women are pushing for more action on human trafficking. The Department of Justice has refused to collect data on the issue despite studies by advocates that reveal  widespread problems, both on and off reservations.

The situation would be rectified by S.1953, a bill that reauthorizes the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. The bipartisan measure has cleared the Indian Affairs Committee and awaits further action.

On a related front, Congress passed H.R.1865, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, after the committee was told that Native women, and even girls, are being trafficked on the internet. Right before the measure was signed into law, a website that was called out during a  hearing last September was seized by federal authorities and its proprietors were indicted on prostitution and other charges, Cronkite News reported.

“The seizure of the malicious sex marketplace marks an important step forward in the fight against human trafficking,” Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona),a former two-term chairman of the committee, said in a statement. His wife, Cindy, is a leader on trafficking issues and had testified at last fall’s hearing, accusing the site of victimizing Native women and girls.

National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls 

Watch Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) discuss the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls on the floor of the Senate in May 2017. Daines has sponsored the #MMIW resolution for two years in a row. He participated in the first National Day with a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Walk in honor of Hanna Harris.