MMIW families still need enforceable legislation

Too often, tribal, state and federal governments mishandle cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. This has to change.


Attendees hold red candles during a vigil for Selena Not Afraid at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. Not Afraid’s case received state and national attention, which is not the norm for MMIWG cases.
Ryan Berry/Bozeman Daily Chronicle

On Jan. 18, Indigenous communities in Montana got the news they hoped would never come. Authorities found the body of 16-year-old Selena Not Afraid during a systematic grid search, nearly three weeks after she disappeared from a remote rest area between Billings and Hardin. Since New Year’s Day, volunteers rallied around Not Afraid’s family, while law enforcement drones and K-9s assisted on-the-ground searchers, but no signs of the teen were discovered. In the end, her body was found in an area that had been previously searched. Throughout the course of her disappearance, national media converged on the rest area where Not Afraid’s family had gathered to camp, sharing with America the hopelessness faced by the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, or MMIWG.

Montana leadership responded to Not Afraid’s case with action and advocacy. That’s not always the case, however. While this particular instance received crucial state and national attention, that still isn’t the norm for investigations into missing and murdered Indigenous people. Too often, it becomes the responsibility of the families to hold systems and bureaucracies accountable. That’s why it’s so important for the public to keep pressure on state and federal politicians to pass and enforce legislation.

In Montana’s Big Horn County alone, there are currently 28 cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women or girls on the radar, the majority having occurred since 2010. Nationwide, over 5,000 Indigenous women and girls are currently reported missing, or murdered. The crisis has received national attention, reaching the halls of Congress: In 2018, hopes were raised by Savanna’s Act — named for Savanna Greywind, a murdered Native woman — but it failed to pass the U.S. House of Representatives. Last year, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. — one of the first Indigenous women elected to the House — introduced the Not Invisible Act, which strengthened provisions for Indian Country in the Violence Against Women Act.

The crisis has also reached the White House: In November 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order creating a task force called Operation Lady Justice aimed at addressing MMIW. However, the executive order doesn’t offer any long-term solutions or even require law enforcement agencies to take any tangible action. When Selena Not Afraid, a member of the Crow Nation, disappeared, her family searched to no avail for a contact within the newly created task force. Not Afraid’s aunt, Cheryl Horn, said they were instead connected with the FBI’s missing children’s task force.

Families of victims need something more substantial: new legislation focused on fixing systemic flaws.

Political leaders took steps to alert the public: Montana Sen. Jon Tester, D, released a statement urging FBI Director Christopher Wray to prioritize locating the young woman. Chairman Alvin Not Afraid of the Crow Nation — Selena’s uncle — took an active role, providing continuous updates and calling on Montana Attorney General Tim Fox to get involved with the investigation. While these responses were necessary and appreciated, families of victims need something more substantial: new legislation focused on fixing systemic flaws.

Families are often left in the dark and forced to investigate on their own. Many scroll through endless social media feeds, looking for clues that may lead them to a loved one or suspect. Law enforcement agencies rarely follow up with families, as was the case when 14-year-old Henny Scott was found dead on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in January of 2019. Foul play was not suspected; Scott’s cause of death was ruled as hypothermia. But according to Scott’s mother, Paula Castro-Stops, her body showed signs of violence, and she felt that investigators overlooked key evidence. Federal investigators have since announced that no one will be charged in Scott’s death.

Activists within Native communities have long pushed for tangible action on how cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people are handled. The Montana Legislature passed Hanna’s Act in 2019, naming it for Hanna Harris, a young Northern Cheyenne woman who disappeared in the summer of 2013. Volunteer searchers discovered the body; local law enforcement had refused to search until after the 4th of July weekend festivities were over, according to Harris’ mother, Malinda Harris Limberhand. By the time Harris was discovered, her body was too decomposed to determine an exact cause of death.

Hanna’s Act requires in part that missing persons specialists “provide guidance and support to law enforcement authorities and families in the search for missing persons.” But that wasn’t the experience Selena Not Afraid’s family had when they met with missing persons specialists. According to Not Afraid’s aunt, Cheryl Horn, employees of Montana’s MMIW task force said that “they weren’t at the stage to offer help to families.” This conflicts with the spirit of Hanna’s Act, giving the impression that the task force was created without any guidance or preparation. Ultimately, it was largely Horn’s advocacy that brought national attention.

The burden of holding law enforcement accountable shouldn’t fall to family members of missing or murdered Indigenous people as they search for, or grieve for, their loved ones. That’s why it’s vital to keep the pressure on leaders and politicians. Until states and Congress pass enforceable legislation — whether it’s Savanna’s Act or the Violence Against Women Act — Native communities will be left to bear the burden of faulty institutions, when they should be receiving support. Without accountability, presidential executive orders and new missing persons jobs are just lip service.

Angelina Newsom is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe currently writing about politics, justice, identity and culture. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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