Native American women are missing and murdered. Will the federal government act?




Activists march for missing and murdered Indigenous women at the Women's March California 2019 on January 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. Photo by Sarah Morris | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind was 22, eight months pregnant, and looking forward to her baby shower the following day when she went missing on a sunny August afternoon in 2017.

She had gone to a neighbor’s apartment in Fargo, N.D., where she had been asked to help with a sewing project. 

She never came home. 

Kayakers discovered her body floating in the Red River a week later. Police found her baby alive in the neighbor’s apartment. The neighbor was later convicted of murdering LaFontaine-Greywind and cutting the baby from her body. 

LaFontaine-Greywind was a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe; her mother is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. LaFontaine-Greywind is one of the thousands of Native American women missing or murdered in an epidemic of violence across the country.

Indigenous women and girls face disproportionately high rates of violence in the United States. Experts estimate Native American women face a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average, with 84% experiencing some form of violence in their lifetimes, according to research from the National Institute for Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice.

So what’s the government doing about it? 

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, recounted Savanna’s story at a hearing on the issue last year in the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee. Gallego paused to clear his throat, shook his head and blinked tears out of his eyes.

“I know these stories are hard to hear – trust me, it’s hard for me to read them – but we must face this problem in order to address them,” Gallego said, his voice breaking. “We must improve the data system related to murdered and missing indigenous women to truly identify the scope of this problem.”

Policymakers “must take action, so this does not keep on going,” Gallego added. 

After decades of grass-roots advocacy from indigenous activists and victims’ families, federal and state governments have recently begun to take action with task forces and legislation.

One of those bills is named after LaFontaine-Greywind. Savanna’s Act, a rare bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill, calls for more federal and tribal coordination in response to cases of missing or murdered Native American women.

Cataloging the crisis

No one knows exactly how many Native women go missing or are murdered each year. There is no official federal database on the issue. 

But more than 5,600 cases for missing Native women or girls had been logged in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database by the end of 2017. 

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. 

Advocates say the overall numbers are likely higher, since some Native people do not report the data to the federal government.

Last year, only 47 of the 574 federally recognized tribes participated in the database, partly due to some tribes’ lack of access to updated computers or internet. Without data on all potential crimes, some cases go cold. Investigators at a crime scene or on traffic stops can’t pull up information on missing people or potential suspects.

And even when they are reported, victims are sometimes misclassified or overlooked, especially if they live in urban areas instead of on reservations.

On some reservations, indigenous women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average, according to the Indian Law Resource Center. 

The problem is pronounced in Arizona. The Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit that examines unsolved murders, found that one in three murders of Native Americans in Arizona go unreported to the FBI

Arizona had the third-highest number of cases of missing and murdered indigenous women of the cities evaluated in a report last year from the Urban Indian Health Institute. And a previous analysis by Arizona Mirror of the sparse publicly available data on missing and murdered indigenous women cases found that more than 25 percent of murders involving idigenous women in Arizona go unsolved.

There are varied and complicated forces at play behind the disproportionate violence and patchy response. Activists and researchers say the crisis has been building for years, a legacy of generations of injustice, including government policies forcing people from their land and sex trafficking of girls and women. 

Victims can be targeted because they live in remote areas or because of their race. Some are dealing with addiction or other trauma. 

“The crisis we are talking about has deep roots in the historical mistreatment of Native women,” Sarah Deer, a professor at the and citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, told lawmakers at a hearing on the issue last spring.

“Native women and girls have been disappearing literally since 1492, when Europeans kidnapped native women for shipment back to Europe,” she said. 

There are 574 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States and more than 320 Indian reservations. Over one million Native American residents live on or near reservation lands.

Victims’ families can face a patchwork of tribal, state and federal law-enforcement agencies to respond to a crime, and sometimes victims are dismissed as chronic runaways.

Advocates see ‘glaring holes’ in federal response

As the issue has gained national attention, Congress and the White House have raced to show some response.

President Donald Trump authorized a new federal task force on the issue last November. It met for the first time in January.

The group’s aim is to develop protocols and procedures to address new and unsolved cases. The task force includes representatives from the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Justice and other federal agencies. 

“The task force is eager to get to work to address the issues that underlie this terrible problem, and work with our tribal partners to find solutions, raise awareness, and bring answers and justice to the grieving,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement. 

But notably missing from the task force itself are tribal leaders or indigenous survivors – a point of contention for indigenous advocates who have been tracking the issue for years. Annita Lucchesi, executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, said the task force seems like a hollow attempt to make it appear the administration is addressing the issue in an election year. 

“It has glaring holes in terms of who should be there,” Lucchesi said. 

“Frankly, I don’t trust federal agencies to self-investigate and identify their own gaps and breakdowns in justice, and self-correct with no outside accountability.”

Action in Congress? 

In the U.S. Capitol, lawmakers have introduced two significant stand-alone bills on the issue in recent years: Savanna’s Act and the “Not Invisible Act,” as well as provisions for Native women in the Violence Against Women Act. 

Lucchesi is more hopeful about the potential for those bills – which focus on better data collection.

“You can’t end violence that you don’t understand,” Lucchesi said. 

Savanna’s Act would boost coordination between federal and tribal agencies and improve tribal access to law enforcement databases. 

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) first introduced Savanna’s Act in 2017. It passed the Senate unanimously, but faced a roadblock from Republicans who controlled the House of Representatives at the time. Former Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, blocked it in the House. He objected to how it dispersed federal funds. 

Since then, Goodlatte retired and Democrats took control of the House, opening the door for action on the bill this year. The senators also changed some language in the bill to try to overcome any opposition from the House. 

The “Not Invisible Act” would create a new federal post within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to coordinate violent crime prevention. It also requires the Interior Department and the Attorney General to form an advisory committee on violent crime.

Both of Arizona’s senators signed on as co-sponsors of the Savanna Act. On the House side, Democratic Reps. Gallego, Greg Stanton and Tom O’Halleran are cosponsors. 

Gallego and O’Halleran also backed the Not Invisible Act, along with House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat. 

Arizona is one of seven states that have recently set up their own state task forces to study violence on indigenous women. 

The Arizona state legislature last year called for the formation of a committee to examine the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. Gov. Doug Ducey signed the bill last spring. It establishes a 21-member study committee that will consist of members of indigenous communities, neighboring communities, law enforcement and social services. 

Separate legislation passed by the U.S. House last year – a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act – would require the Government Accountability Office to look at how law enforcement agencies are responding to the crisis. It also gives tribes more jurisdiction over crimes committed on tribal land and includes provisions to allow tribal law enforcement officers to prosecute non-tribal members for domestic violence on tribal land.  

The House approved the landmark VAWA last year, but it has made no progress in the Senate.

The issue has also made its way into other legislation. Debate in the House this year over a massive infrastructure bill included discussion of the need for expanded broadband and 911 access, in part to help Native women. 

Researchers and advocates say these efforts are hopeful, but it will take years of work to reverse the problems.

“There will be no quick fix to this problem. The crisis has been several hundred years in the making and will require sustained multi-year, multifaceted efforts to understand and address the problem,” said Deer of the University of Kansas.