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'Shameful Reality Stops Today': Indigenous Rights Advocates Applaud Passage of Bills to End Epidemic of Missing and Murdered Native Women

"This legislation passing means I won't have to have those whispered conversations with my daughters about how the government turns its back on our Native women," one advocate said.

Micaela Iron Shell has painted red hands over their mouth to show solidarity for missing and murdered indigenous, black and migrant women and children during a rally with Climate activist Greta Thunberg in Denver, Colorado in 2019. (Photo: RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

As lawmakers Tuesday celebrated the U.S. House's long-overdue passage of two bills aimed at helping local and national law enforcement agencies track and prosecute crimes against Native American women and girls, tribal advocates—while pleased the measures are moving forward—cautioned that there is more work ahead.

"It's been a long road to have policy to protect Natives," Emily Washines, a historian and member of the Yakama Nation told the Spokesman-Review Tuesday. "I think back to when I was in elementary school, not understanding why we had so many missing and murdered women on the Yakama Reservation."

"The statistics are grim," Tammy Ayer wrote for the Yakima Herald Monday. According to her reporting:

A report from the National Institute of Justice found that more than four out of five Native American women have experienced violence in their lives. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control reported that homicide is the third leading cause of death among Native American women between the ages of 10 and 24. The Department of Justice has reported Native American women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than other Americans.

On the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation, women have passed down stories from as far back as the mid-1800s of rape and murder by miners, by soldiers, by other outsiders. The passage of time does not diminish the terror of these assaults, which continue today.

A Department of Justice study published in 2016 found that more than 84% of Indigenous women have experienced violence in their lifetimes, yet the scale and breadth of the violence is unclear, particularly due to a lack of data collection and coordination between law enforcement, something these bills aim to improve.

"Murder is the third-leading cause of death for Native American women, according to ⁦The Urban Indian Health Institute," Crystal EchoHawk, executive director of IllumiNative, tweeted early Tuesday in response to the bills' passing. "In 2016, there were 5,712 cases reported of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. But only 116 cases were logged in the DOJ database."

The first bill—named Savanna's Act after 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe from Fargo, North Dakota, who was eight months pregnant when she was killed in 2017—was passed by the U.S. Senate in 2018, but former Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, prevented the bill from going to the House floor for a vote. The bill directs the Justice Department to develop new law enforcement guidelines, require better training and data collection and improve tribes' access to federal criminal data.

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"Everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities, but Native American and Alaskan Native women continue to face murder and violence at rates that should make our country ashamed," Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M), co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, said in a statement.

"Savanna Greywind's story is heartbreaking and the fact that there are an unknown number of stories like hers is terrifying," Haaland continued. "This long-standing epidemic will take time, resources, and dedication to resolve it—and today we're taking a major step by passing Savanna's Act to improve data collection of missing and murdered Indigenous women which is critical to solving this problem. Representatives Torres and Newhouse were great partners as I worked hard to prioritize the safety of all Native women, on and off Tribal lands, with this bill.”

"Native women have endured horrific rates of assault, rape, and murder for far too long, and innocent people like Savanna have been lost with too little effort spent on ending this scourge," Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Native American Caucus said in a statement Monday.

"That shameful reality stops today," Torres continued. "I am incredibly grateful to the bipartisan group of lawmakers who joined forces with me to champion Savanna's Act throughout the legislative process and usher it to a successful vote today. While we celebrate this victory, every one of us knows it's bittersweet. I hope this vote brings some closure to the countless family members in Native communities who live with the pain of a lost loved one every day. Their unwavering advocacy made this day a reality, and an untold number of lives will be saved as a result."

The second bill, the Not Invisible Act, passed by the Senate in March of 2020, creates an advisory commission to recommend changes to the Justice and Interior Departments in an attempt to improve coordination between federal agencies, tribal and municipal law enforcement, and victim service organizations. 

As of Tuesday, President Donald Trump has not commented on the legislation, but a spokeswoman for Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), who cosponsored the bills, told the Spokesman-Review that Newhouse "fully expects" the president to sign both bills.

"This legislation passing means I won't have to have those whispered conversations with my daughters about how the government turns its back on our Native women," Washines said. "The work of safety and justice continues."

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