For decades, Native American tribal communities have had to organize and mobilize just to get the rest of us to pay attention to the longstanding crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Why have far too many of us ignored this? What’s being done to curb this epidemic of violence against Indigenous women? And really, why did we let this become a crisis in the first place?
WARNING: Today, we’re discussing issues involving domestic and sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
First let’s review how Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act became law, and why they needed to be passed into law in the first place.
Last week, we lamented Congress’ ongoing stalemate over reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Yet even as VAWA reauthorization was being filibustered to legislative death, Congress not only successfully passed two narrower bills that address the growing crisis of missing and murdered Indigneous women, but they even managed to get then President Donald Trump to sign both bills into law last year.
Savanna’s Act aims to improve communication and coordination among federal, state, county/city, and Native American tribal governments; improves tribal authorities’ access to critical data like the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS); requires better data collection on missing and murdered Native Americans regardless of residence; and directs the U.S. Justice Department to develop regionally appropriate guidelines for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans. The Not Invisible Act establishes a Joint Commission on Reducing Violent Crimes Against Indians that reports to the Justice Department and the Interior Department and will recommend best practices to combat violent crimes targeting Native Americans; and it requires Interior to designate someone within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to coordinate programs relating to cases of missing, murdered, and trafficked Native Americans.
On an episode of my podcast, #TheHotdish, I spoke w/ experts & advocates about their work to help indigenous women overcome obstacles & hardships & my bill, #SavannasAct, which aims to help. Listen & learn more here: https://t.co/tp25eW5V7F
— Archive: Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (@SenatorHeitkamp) December 18, 2018
Then U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) introduced Savanna’s Act in 2017, after the murder of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind of the Spirit Lake Tribe garnered national media attention. Despite the Senate’s unanimous passage of Savanna’s Act in 2018, then House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) single-handedly blocked the bill in that chamber. Neither he nor then House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) publicly provided any rationale for the House blockade, but HuffPost reported in December 2018 that Congressional aides claimed Goodlatte opposed Savanna’s Act’s provision to direct the Justice Department to give preference to states, municipalities, and Native American tribal authorities seeking grant funds to dedicate to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
After Democrats took control of the U.S. House and Heitkamp lost her Senate seat in the 2018 cycle, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) took up Savanna’s Act, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) introduced the Not Invisible Act, and both bills easily passed both houses of Congress in 2020. And following the inauguration of President Joe Biden and the confirmation of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Haaland announced the creation of a new Missing and Murdered Unit to better comply with Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act, and to better direct resources toward solving these cases.
“On the client side and on the victim side, there is just a lack of trust that leads to these crimes going unreported.”
– Deserea Quintana, Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada
Last Thursday, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto held a virtual roundtable discussion with local Indigenous community leaders and law enforcement officials to discuss the progress of implementing Savanna’s Act, as well as the ongoing challenges in confronting violence against Indigenous women.
As she opened the discussion, Cortez Masto declared, “I can not imagine any parent having to lie awake at night and wonder where their daughters are. […]The two laws will make sure that we will be able to do a lot more to help Native American women.” And in explaining why she introduced the Not Invisible Act, Cortez Masto said, “We wanted to make sure everyone could come together. We wanted everyone to communicate.”
While the panelists in the forum expressed their appreciation for Cortez Masto’s, Murkowski’s, and Heitkamp’s efforts to direct federal law enforcement to take this crisis of violence against Native American women more seriously, they also noted that far more must still be done. As James Owens, the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe’s Chief of Police, explained, “Trust is important. Trust is necessary. People need to trust their law enforcement in order for us to work.”
Deserea Quintana of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada provided another perspective on this troubling dynamic: “On the client side and on the victim side, there is just a lack of trust that leads to these crimes going unreported.”
“It’s a dehumanization that comes with colonization. Our women are seen as ‘expendable’.”
– Dr. Debra Harry, University of Nevada Reno, on mainstream media portrayals of Indigenous women
So how severe is this crisis of violence targeting Indigenous women? Here’s what makes this crisis worse, and here’s another reason why Congress eventually passed Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act last year: We still don’t have sufficient data on crimes against Native Americans. The Sovereign Bodies Institute released a report last July that documented 2,306 cases of missing Indigenous women and girls in the U.S., with about 60% of these cases eventually being labeled as homicides. However, law enforcement agencies still don’t offer the kind of data on crimes targeting Indigenous peoples that we’ve come to expect from resources like the FBI’s official crime statistics.
As we’ve previously discussed on this site, America’s communities of color have historically experienced a much more strained relationship with law enforcement than the whiter and more affluent communities where we’re most likely to find media pundits who still navel-gaze over “how Black Lives Matter activists’ ‘Defund the Police’ slogan nearly cost Democrats the 2020 election!” (Fact check: No, it did not.) For all the televised hand-wringing over how one slogan from a network of civil rights activists is allegedly somehow threatening our national security (Reality check: No, it’s not.), too many of us ignore how crimes targeting communities of color typically don’t get the same kind of societal response as similar crimes affecting white victims that result in their own TV series and commercial podcast releases.
That leads us to another disparity, one that hits disturbingly close to home. Dr. Debra Harry, an associate professor in the Department of Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno, explained, “There’s a severe lack of awareness on the issue. The media play a key role here. Indigenous women tend to be dehumanized and looked down upon in public.”
As much as we want to believe that movies like Pocahontas are just “heartwarming”, or those “Classic Cowboys and Indians Films” that our parents and grandparents grew up with are just “good movies”, we must acknowledge how this pop-cultural tradition of reducing Native American tribal communities to stereotypical tropes can be dangerous. Or as Dr. Harry pointed out, “It’s a dehumanization that comes with colonization. Our women are seen as ‘expendable’.”
“When there are crimes committed, our people are left with no place to go.”
– Dr. Debra Harry, University of Nevada Reno
Even worse, the dehumanization doesn’t stop with fictional movies. In news coverage, and on some of the rare true crime series that do cover Native American tribal communities, how many times do we see imagery and/or hear stories that give the (horribly false) impression that Indigenous women are already a “lost cause”? Or as Dr. Harry put it, “The American narrative is that we’re long gone. We’re portrayed as if we’re no longer valid on this continent.”
Even worse, this false narrative has permeated into law enforcement circles. As Harry noted, “When there are crimes committed, our people are left with no place to go.” She then shared her own account of her attempt to contact a Las Vegas federal law enforcement office regarding a missing person case. That law enforcement office wouldn’t even take her call.
Before we continue, I must clarify that no one at last week’s virtual roundtable advocated for “Defund the Police” or any form of law enforcement abolition. They largely just asked for more law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and municipal levels to cooperate with their communities and treat crimes against Indigenous women the same as they handle crimes against other Americans.
According to Harry, “We need more boots on the ground. Capacity must be built on the local level. We also need collaborative partnerships with agencies across all levels.” Amber Torres, Chair of Walker River Paiute Tribe, agreed: “The solution that I can see as a tribal leader is that we need adequate funding. We need adequate funding for our own [law enforcement resources].”
“There has to be follow-up. There can’t just be consultation. There can’t just be ‘checking off the box’.”
– Amber Torres, Chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe
So what’s happening now? In Congress, Cortez Masto promised to use her position in the Senate to ensure full implementation of Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act: “I have oversight. I can call and question [federal law enforcement leaders].” At the executive level, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and President Joe Biden himself have promised continuing implementation of the two laws, and Biden has promised to continue advocating for full reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that will include provisions like ensuring Native American tribal courts’ ability to try domestic violence cases that occur on tribal lands regardless of whether the criminal defendants are themselves tribal community residents.
Meanwhile closer to home, local tribal leaders indicated they need more than just official consultation. For Quintana, “I think these conversations are helpful. The problem is we keep having these conversations, and we keep saying these conversations are helpful. We’re going around in circles.”
While Torres thanked Cortez Masto for this forum, and for her work on the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act, she nonetheless made clear that federal and local authorities need to do more than just consult tribal communities and collect data: “There has to be follow-up. There can’t just be consultation. There can’t just be ‘checking off the box’.”
If you or someone you know is facing a major life crisis and struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always there at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). So is the Crisis Text Line, where you can start a conversation with a volunteer counselor by texting “START” to 741741. For LGBTQ+ youth in need of immediate help, the Trevor Project has a 24/7 hotline at 1-866-488-7386 and a text option (text “START” to 678678) available.
If you know anyone who’s currently experiencing domestic and/or sexual violence, the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence has a list of resources available across the state. If you want to do more to help, check out the Nevada Coalition’s action page for ideas on getting more involved. And for more information on how to help end this epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, check out this extensive resource card, the Sovereign Bodies Institute , the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and PLAN.
The cover photo is a screenshot taken by me.