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By Yingjie Gu 3-01-2018

WASHINGTON — More than 84 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime. Yet legal protections for domestic and sexual violence remain minimal for Native women and girls.

The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center hosted a series of events in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12 to spotlight the crisis of missing and murdered Native women in the United States.

Congresswomen Norma Torres (D-Calif.) joined a coalition of non-profit organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, the Indian Law Resource Center, Stronghearts Native Helpline, and the Alaska Native Women’s Resources Center at a series of receptions, educational informational sessions, and a screening of Wind River, a film that highlights the high proportion of Native women who are sexually assaulted by non-Natives. Nearly 200 tribal leaders, hill staffers, and organization leaders attended and exchanged ideas at the gathering.

Facilitating jurisdiction progress for Native women has become the first priority for these events, said Lori Jump, assistant director for StrongHearts Native Helpline, a hotline that provides support to victims of domestic violence in tribal communities. 

“Raising awareness and educating the entire spectrum of leadership — from grassroots advocates to members of Congress — is critical to our ability to pass legislation that protects all women, including Native women on tribal lands,” Jump told Sojourners.

Since 1978, when the Supreme Court set precedent with Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, tribes within the United States have not had the power to punish non-Natives for crimes conducted in tribal lands without authorization from Congress.

The Violence Against Women Act of 2013 (VAWA) restored that power by specifically granting tribes to punish any person “regardless of their Indian or non-Indian status, who commit acts of domestic violence or dating violence or violate certain protection orders in Indian country.” But the bill is up for reauthorization again in 2018.

The incidences of murder and abduction among Native women in particular are alarmingly high. The issue was featured at the second Women’s March in January, where speakers and advocates highlighted cases like Edith Chavez, who in 2015 was abducted, suspected drugged, and taken from Minnesota to North Dakota; a pregnant Renee Davis, who was killed by King County police in her home on Muckleshoot tribal land in 2016; actress Misty Upham, who was missing for 11 days before being found dead in a ravine in Washington State; Nicole Joe, who died in a domestic dispute in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2017; Ashley Loring HeavyRunner, a college student who vanished from the Blackfeet Reservation in 2017; and others.

In October, U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) introduced a related bill, Savanna’s Act, which advocates for improving tribal access to the federal crime information database as well as creating a system to track the missing and murdered Native population.

North Dakota alone recorded 125 cases of missing Native American women and girls in 2016, and Sen. Heitkamp has said she suspects the real number is likely higher. The bill is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, of the Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nations, who was found dead in Fargo, N.D., in August 2017. She was murdered by two non-Native residents of Fargo, who forcibly removed her unborn baby from her womb before she died. 

Congresswoman Torres introduced Savanna’s Act to the House in November.

“Accurate statistics aren’t gathered in tribal communities, making it much more difficult to address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women,” Torres said at last week’s event. “I’m pushing for increased funding for research on violence against Native women and girls.”

According to a 2016 study on violence against Native women and men funded by National Institute of Justice (NIJ), 97 percent of female victims have experienced violence at the hands of a non-Native perpetrator.

“Any legislation passed must recognize and fully support the sovereignty of Tribes, and our inherent right to protect our relatives,” Jump said.

Yingjie (Jenny) Gu is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, specializing in politics and national security. Before Medill, she interned for Chinese Radio Seattle, her hometown newspaper, and Seattle nonprofits.

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