Senate hears stories of Indian Country’s missing and murdered

Data gaps, understaffing and lax investigations have deepened the crisis.

 

The last time someone saw Ashley Loring-Heavy Runner, she was running away from a man’s vehicle on US Highway 89 along the Rocky Mountain Front on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. The 20-year-old was reported missing in June 2017, and since then, the only development in her investigation was the discovery of a black sweater and a pair of boots, now languishing in a Bureau of Indian Affairs evidence room.

That’s what Loring-Heavy Runner’s sister, Kimberly Loring-Heavy Runner, told senators Wednesday during testimony for the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs. “I believe law enforcement did not take Ashley’s case seriously, as well as other girls who have gone missing and murdered on Indian Country,” Loring-Heavy Runner said, later adding, “They failed Ashley.”

The oversight hearing on missing and murdered Indigenous women featured a litany of statistics from federal investigators, as well as personal stories from Loring-Heavy Runner and two other Indigenous women, highlighting the dire need of more funding and legislative attention to a crisis of unknown proportions — unknown because of a dearth in data and record keeping on the part of federal, state and tribal governments.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty and Patricia Alexander, a member of the Tlingit and Haida Alaskan tribes, exchange words of encouragement to each other before testifying in the Senate hearing.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images

“The purpose of this hearing is not to talk about if we have a problem. It’s to talk about what you’re going to do about it,” outgoing Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., told a row of federal officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Federal Bureau of Investigations and National Institute of Justice. “When these crimes go uninvestigated, when they go unsolved for long, long periods of time, or ignored for long, long periods of time, that’s your failure. It’s not the community’s failure, it’s your failure.”

Violence against women in Indian Country is a pressing and long-standing problem; Native women are murdered at a rate ten times the national average, but tribes cannot prosecute murderers. Eighty-four percent of Native American and Alaskan Native women have experienced some form of violence, 56 percent of which is sexual violence. Ninety-seven percent of crimes against Indigenous people are committed by non-Natives, yet tribes can’t prosecute non-Natives for crimes like sexual assault or rape.

As a legislative body that passes laws and appropriates money for tribal nations and federal programs that serve Native communities, Congress has a powerful role in addressing the problem. So far there have been only a handful of acts and resolutions passed to address the problem of violence against Indigenous women (see sidebar).

Much of Wednesday’s hearing revealed a lack of federal prioritization for cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as a lack of funding and resources to enforce existing statutes. When Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked why so many cases were stymied and what needs to change, none of the officials from the BIA, FBI or the National Institute of Justice responded beyond suggesting better coordination between state, tribal and federal agencies. Both Tester and Heitkamp later noted that only the BIA’s Director of Office of Justice Services, Charles Addington, stayed to hear testimony from Loring-Heavy Runner and two other Native women. “It makes us all question the real commitment to this issue, and that’s tragic,” Heitkamp said.

From the Navajo Nation, Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty shared stories of seven missing or murdered women and girls to illustrate the shortcomings of law enforcement, from 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike kidnapped and killed in Shiprock, New Mexico, to 63-year-old Marena Holiday, murdered by a neighbor in Comb Ridge, Utah. The Nation is severely understaffed and underfunded to adequately respond to crimes, Crotty testified, which has meant Navajo courts have been unable to enact the Violence Against Women Act provisions that would allow them to prosecute non-Native offenders of domestic violence against Indigenous women. An estimated $10 million a year would be needed to handle the increased caseload. And they have received little help from federal or state agencies.

“It’s a criminal justice system that sometimes just does not provide justice for the missing and the murdered in Indian Country. That’s what we’ve been seeing time and time again,” Crotty told senators. “We do not have jurisdiction to deal with this matter. We do not have the funding to do it. We are bound by federal law that has taken this authority away from us.” 

At the end of the three-hour hearing, Tester said he was unsatisfied with responses from federal officials on what needs to change to address the problem of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Indian Country. “I’m not sure we got any answers today,” said Tester, who requested the hearing along with Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. “But Mr. Chairman, I don’t think this should be our last hearing on this, I’ll tell you that.”

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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