Lawmakers Propose New Ways to Help Native American Women

Federal and state lawmakers have proposed or adopted a series of measures designed to address the problem of missing and slain Native American women and related issues, such as human trafficking, domestic violence and rape. Among them: 

From Capitol Hill

— Savanna’s Act : The legislation, introduced last fall by North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, seeks to expand tribal access to some federal crime databases and establish protocols for handling cases of missing and slain  Native Americans. It also would require annual reports to Congress on the number of missing and slain Native American women. The Democratic senator says if authorities have accurate statistics, they might be able to detect patterns that help solve more cases.

Last year, Heitkamp also launched the #NotInvisible social media campaign to draw attention to this problem.

— End Trafficking of Native Americans Act: The bill, introduced in July by three senators — Heitkamp, Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, and Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat — would expand efforts to combat human trafficking among Native Americans and Alaska Natives. It would establish an advisory committee to make recommendations to the Justice and Interior departments and a coordinator within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to organize prevention efforts across federal agencies.

— SURVIVE Act (Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment): This measure would create a tribal grant program within the Justice Department. It would allot 5 percent from a federal crime victims fund for grants that could be used to help tribes assist survivors of violent crimes and set up programs and services, including rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters.

The bill was reintroduced last year by Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, and has co-sponsors from both parties.

— The National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. The Senate unanimously passed a resolution designating the day in memory of Hanna Harris, who was murdered in July 2013 on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.

The first day of awareness was May 5, 2017, which would have been Harris’ 25th birthday. A woman and her common-law husband pleaded guilty in Harris’ death, and both were sentenced to prison.

Washington state

In June, a law was enacted that requires the Washington State Patrol to conduct a study to examine how to improve the collection and sharing of information about missing Native American women.

The study also will develop an estimate of how many Native women are missing in the state. “We don’t even know the exact scope of our problem,” said State Patrol spokeswoman Monica Alexander. “We have been told there are hundreds … and nobody is doing anything about it.”

Patrol officials will travel the state to assess the problem and meet with members of the state’s 29 tribes. The patrol will present a report to the Legislature next June.

Montana

The Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee heard testimony this spring that could lead to five bills addressing missing persons. These measures were inspired, in part, by discussions about missing and slain Native American women.

One proposal is called Hanna’s Act, in remembrance of Hanna Harris. It would authorize the state’s Justice Department to assist with the investigation of all missing-person cases and employ a specialist who would act as a liaison between families and law enforcement agencies.

A second proposal would require law enforcement to accept, without delay, reports of missing persons. Harris’ family complained authorities were slow to search for Hanna after they reported her missing.

The committee meets Sept. 7 to decide whether to move the proposed legislation forward. 

Minnesota

A bill to establish a governor’s task force to address the cases of missing and slain Native women in the state failed to pass the Legislature this year. But the chief sponsor, state Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, says she is working with activists to gather data and plans to tweak the measure with additional information and reintroduce it in January.

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