Tight-knit communities mourn, holding vigils for those they’ve lost. Police open cases but are not always able to resolve them. As the senior senators for states that are home to large Native communities — Nevada and Alaska — we’ve heard these same heartbreaking stories again and again. We’re determined to do all we can to stop the violence against American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Take the shocking case of 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, who in 2017 was murdered at eight months pregnant by a neighbor plotting to kidnap her unborn child. Later, her body was found floating in a nearby lake — and her healthy daughter was found alive in the neighbor’s home.
In 1993, 20-year-old Sophie Sergie from the village of Pitkas Point, Alaska, flew to Fairbanks for an orthodontist appointment and never came back. Tragically she was sexually assaulted, murdered and left in a bathtub on campus. Her murder has remained unsolved for more than a quarter century, although recently a suspect in her death was arrested.
From Reno, Nevada to Nome, Alaska, thousands of families have felt the impact of this violence. A 2012 Department of Justice report noted that in some tribal areas, murders of Native women occur at a rate ten times the national average. But no one really knows how many Native women and girls go missing every year, and that lack of data is a big part of the problem.
We know these cases are underreported. Cases like LaFontaine-Greywind’s and Sergie’s receive media attention. But without numbers, it’s easier for the crisis to be unrecognized — by the public and, until more recently, by the federal government.
Then, too, there are legal hurdles, including thorny layers of jurisdiction on tribal lands, which muddy the waters and allow some investigators to pass the buck on difficult-to-solve cases.
This includes complicated local, tribal, state and federal jurisdictional issues.
The long history of mistreatment and discrimination against Native people plays a role in the crisis as well. Decades of underinvestment in Native communities have meant that they have fewer resources to prevent and investigate crimes. And Native communities can prosecute non-Natives for crimes only in certain circumstances, even though perpetrators of violent crimes against Native women and girls are much more likely to be non-Native.
All these factors combine to make it hard to prevent and respond to violent crimes against American Indians and Alaska Natives. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. According to a 2016 Department of Justice report, 84% of Native women — and 81% of Native men — experience some level of violence during their lifetimes, and a third of Native women experience sexual violence at some point. This is shockingly unacceptable.
We’ve been working to change that. Last year, the two of us teamed up and worked across the aisle to pass the “Not Invisible Act” and “Savanna’s Act,” named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind. These laws that had bipartisan support make sure the federal government is engaged in addressing the crisis of missing, murdered and trafficked Indigenous women and children. We worked closely on this legislation because protecting women and children cannot and should not be a partisan issue.
Before our two bills became law, there was no enduring strategy in the government to combat this ongoing epidemic. Now, federal agencies are required to work much more closely with one another and with tribes to bring perpetrators to justice and to prevent violence against Indigenous people in the first place.
These new statutes enforce more stringent data collection and set clear law enforcement guidelines for responding to these crimes. Critically, they also create a commission made up of tribal leaders, survivors, service providers, federal agencies and law enforcement to make recommendations about how to tackle the problem. We included this requirement because we know that tribal leaders in Nevada, Alaska and across the nation are best equipped to ensure our government is doing right by our villages and communities.
The good news is that we are already seeing these critical provisions implemented. Just last month, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the creation of a specific unit in the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate this decades-long crisis, and that the Interior and Justice departments would be taking the first steps to establish the commission that the Not Invisible Act requires. This builds upon the work of the previous administration under Operation Lady Justice to open the Missing and Murdered Unit Offices, which was made possible through dedicated appropriations that we provided.
But we need to be clear: There is much more to do. Implementation of the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act will require an all-hands-on-deck approach. It will need to be done in a truly bipartisan manner. We need the commission to take care to honor the perspectives and voices of tribes and survivors. We need the data to be collected quickly so we can help more women in the future.
We need to equip our local and tribal law enforcement partners with the guidelines and support to prevent more women and girls from going missing and to help find those we’ve sadly already lost.
Both of us are committed to making sure that these laws to safeguard Native women and girls are put into practice. We’re at the beginning of a long-overdue change in responding to violence against American Indians and Alaska Natives. We have to demonstrate through our actions that we value the lives, the well-being, and the central role of women and girls in Native communities. Now, let’s all get to work.
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