Senator Asks Congress for Help for Battered Native Women

WASHINGTON (CN) – North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp beseeched the Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday to address the “invisibility” of women on tribal lands who face the nation’s highest rate of victimization by violent crimes.

According to the National Crime Information Center, more than 5,700 women a year are reported missing in Indian Country — 16 a day; and homicide is the third leading cause of death for Indian and Alaskan native women between the ages of 10 and 24.

Victims of sexual assault, stalking and other forms of violence are often left without sufficient – or any – resources at all, the first-term Republican senator told the committee. Heitkamp grilled North Dakota’s U.S. Attorney General R. Trent Shores — a member of the Choctaw Nation and former counsel at the Department of Justice’s Office of Tribal Justice — on the failings of justice on Indian reservations.

“How many of these cases of [missing or murdered women] have been investigated or have led to the determination of a suspect or led to some form of prosecution?” Heitkamp asked.

Shores could not provide an answer.

Heitkamp asked if he could tell her how many reports of missing women have been filed to tribal police or to the Department of Justice, or how many of those cases are under investigation.

Shores was unable to answer.

Heitkamp continued: “I don’t think you could give me that number, but if I need to ask you how many pending drug investigations there are in this country that the FBI is involved in, I bet you could give me that number. And the clearance rate of prosecutions they’ve made.

“You keep these numbers. I’ve seen these numbers. I’ve been an attorney general of North Dakota, but I’m making the point – this [issue is] invisible.”

Heitkamp added that North Dakota tribes “don’t even have a single amber alert system.”

“There’s no way to know if someone went missing,” the senator said. “I talk to women there and they say, ‘We rely on Facebook to notify each other of what’s happening with these crimes.’

“I can pass all the laws and get all the sponsorships, but if we don’t have a commitment from the DOJ and the DOJ doesn’t make this high priority, we’re not going to be successful.”

The committee on Wednesday addressed three pieces of legislation proposed to address the dearth of law enforcement on tribal lands and the staggering rate of cyclical violence and substance abuse plaguing communities there.

The three proposed laws are the Survive Act, which would fund victim services; the Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization Act, to give tribes access to law enforcement databases to track offenders and assist police; and Savanna’s Act, introduced on Oct. 5, to give tribes access to federal crime databases and create protocols for responses to missing and murdered Native American women such as Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind.

A 22-year-old Fargo woman, LaFontaine-Greywind went missing in August and was killed. Her newborn baby was also abducted, and has been put in custody of Greywind’s boyfriend.

The legislation would also force Congress to obtain annual reports from native communities on the rates of missing and murdered women.

“When someone can sit down with friends at Standing Rock and come up with the names of 25 women who have gone missing or murdered, that’s simply not acceptable,” Heitkamp said.

If passed in Congress, the Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization bill, and a funding increase from $30 million to $150 million, would help women and children too.

James Boyd, a member of the Colville Business Council, which governs the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington, choked up when telling the committee of the children and teenagers he sees suffering from a revolving-door, resource-strapped criminal justice system on tribal land.

“I want to get them into treatment and get them the help they need, rather than sending them to a juvenile system and not hearing anything back or what their accomplishments might be,” Boyd said.

Boyd, who worked as a camp counselor on the reservation, held back tears as he spoke of the “little buddies” he sees picked up by tribal law enforcement, tossed into county jail and released because the county has no jurisdiction or power to address the behavior.

Under decades-old laws, tribes are not allowed to prosecute “10 major crimes” in tribal courts. And because reservations are federal lands, where jurisdiction is a problem for state and local law enforcement, major crimes on reservations are generally referred to the FBI. But a missing poor person is seldom high a high priority for the FBI, which has a welter of national problems to worry about. So a major crime on a reservation is often just a minor irritant for the FBI, and many such crimes are never addressed.

One longtime teacher on a reservation, an Anglo, recalled the story of a former student who was found beaten to death with rocks with his hands tied behind him. Because murder is a major crime, the tribal police referred the case to the FBI. The FBI closed the case as a suicide.

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