By Katrina Arellano
Though it is heartbreaking to hear tragedies day in and day out, talking about the experiences of others and how their lives are affected by violence is crucial to understanding the impact. Something that is not often talked of is how American Indian (AI) and Alaska Native (AN) women have higher rates of violence acted against them such as domestic violence, sexual assault, homicide and even stalking. The homicide rate of AI/AN women are second to African American women, but higher than white women. According to the Reclaiming Power and Place report, native women are 12 times more likely to experience violence in comparison to their white counterparts. All the research is accumulated over the past 30 years, documenting the statistics revolving around indigenous people on reservations, such as AI, AN, and within urban areas such as Canada and Mexico, where 71% of AI/AN live.
According to a 2016 Research report from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), 84% of AI/AN women have experienced violence in their lifetime. To put this percentage into further perspective, this comes out to over 4 in 5 AI/AN women. While the stats on crimes against indigenous women are documented, the data on missing and murdered indigenous women does not have a database, but a likely inaccurate number of 5,712 Native women and girls are missing. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, only 116 of those cases reported were logged in the US Department of Justice’s federal missing data base. These numbers, and rather the lack of, reflect a much-overlooked epidemic and institutional racism, despite past reforms that have tried to close legal loopholes that separate the responsibilities between Tribal and State Law.
Most of these cases are never solved which means Native women are not likely to have justice brought to them because, as stated by the Indian Law Resource Center, the “race-based criminal jurisdictional scheme created by the United States has limited the ability of Indian nations to protect Native women from violence and to provide them with meaningful remedies.” Distinguishing between tribal and federal/state law prevents these nations from having criminal authority over non-Indians simply because they are not of their tribe. The lack of criminal authority over non-Indians, the ones who commit the most acts of violence against Native women, is due to the prosecution being left to the state. Since federal and state officials have the authority over non-Indians vs. the tribes due to differences in jurisdiction and control, prosecutions are often declined. The U.S. Crime Victims Funds are not distributed equally among tribal lands as they are the rest of the states. The funds make up a billion dollars meant to update their resources and support services. According to the Department of Justice report of 2017, “from 2010 through 2014, state governments passed only 0.5 percent of the available funds to programs serving tribal victims, leaving a significant unmet need in most tribal communities.”
The lack of attention to the epidemic of violence against women was studied by the UIHI and found “the lack of quality data include underreporting, racial misclassification, poor relationships between law enforcement and American Indian and Alaska Native communities, poor record-keeping protocols, institutional racism in the media, and a lack of substantive relationships between journalists and American Indian and Alaska Native communities.” It seems these cases are not often talked about not only because of the lack of data documented, but also the lack of reporting by media outlets which come out to 95% of cases never covered by national or international media. UIHI analyzed the coverage that has taken place, concluding 50% of the 46 media outlets used violent language such as racial stereotyping, reference victim’s criminal history, victim-blaming language, or made excuses for the perpetrator. University of Kansas professor, author, and member of Muscogee Nation, Sarah Deer said,
“I think the reason that Native women may go missing at higher rates than other groups of people is very similar to the reason that they are at higher risk for domestic violence and sexual assault. The legal system is simply not functioning properly (to prevent) these types of things from happening.”
The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 was implemented as a means of ensuring Tribes can access law enforcement databases, which in turn is meant to increase public safety within Indian country and decrease violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women. Without this law, the funds to solve and bring justice to the crimes were not there. Tribes want to keep their members safe, but before this law they were lacking in tribal officers, whereas now the law increases efforts to recruit, train and keep them. Implementing this law enhances the authority tribes have to prosecute and incarcerate criminals through better data collection as well as provides resources for survivors, such as legal advice. Reports show how when tribes are given more funds for training and a means of investigation, such as control over investigating and persecuting nontribal members, perpetrators were arrested and convicted more often.
Because so many Native women go missing and are rarely found, Montana finally implemented a bill in the name of a missing Native woman, Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind , 22, who was found floating in nearby water. A tragedy like this is one of many examples of state police not taking cases of missing women seriously. Though she was found dead, her body was found, which is better than not finding her at all. The Savanna Act is a federal bill meant to enforce collection of data on missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) cases between tribal, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, but it does not address or take into consideration the difference between urban and federal jurisdiction which seems to be the basis of the problem of why violence against native women is not documented, resulting in the lack of criminal justice. Honoring Savannah Native women alike is the intention behind naming the bill after her, but according to the bill, the data on Savanna herself would not be logged under the federal government like the bill aims to do. Just last week, Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, spoke with the brother of a missing women, Olivia Lone Bear, who was recently found a mile from her house, dead in a truck submerged in a lake, 9 months after the report was made. The tribe urged for the lake to be searched by the state because they did not have the means of investigating water on their own. This story is one of many which reflect the lack of respect and seriousness taken for tribal peoples. Reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act is the most recent step in restoring tribal jurisdiction because without further tribal authority, suspects and perpetrators will continue to go uninvestigated and therefore Native women and girls will continue to be victims at higher rates. The lack of attention to MMIW cases emanates a lack of care towards indigenous women therefore acting on the crisis of violence against them starts with seeing Native women as victims.