Emily Blue Bird, a 24-year-old mother of two was found dead in January 2016 after going missing on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota earlier in the month. Two people have since been charged in connection with her murder. The miniature dress shown here represents Blue Bird's Lakota name, which was Wicahpi Sakowin Win (Seven Stars Woman), and other missing and murdered sisters. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Native women push for more action on missing and murdered sisters

Native women and their advocates are building more awareness about a problem well known in tribal communities but one that has largely gone unnoticed by the federal government.

Reports from the Department of Justice have repeatedly confirmed that Native women are victimized at far higher rates than anyone else in the United States. The data helped lead to the recognition of inherent tribal authority in the 2013 version of the Violence Against Women Act.

Less concrete are statistics on the numbers of Native women and girls who have gone missing and murdered. Informally, advocates have been collecting stories that shows the problem to be widespread in all states, including Alaska.

"It's not a secret — we all know people," Tami Truett Jerue, the executive director of the Alaska Native Women's Resource Center, said at a briefing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Truett Jerue, said her group, over the course of a handful of meetings, managed to collect the names of 50 Native women who have gone missing or have been murdered in Alaska. "It’s appalling," she told fellow advocates who gathered at a meeting room on the top floor of a Senate building in Washington, D.C.

"We need to address the problem," said Jerue, who also works as an administrator for the Anvik Tribal Council in Alaska. But to do that, "we must first acknowledge the problem," she added.

Acknowledging the problem is the goal of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who are seeking to designate May 5 as National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. They see S.Res.60 as a symbolic yet important first step in getting the government to take notice.

"Too many families in Indian Country have known that unimaginable suffering” when a loved one goes missing, said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana).

Daines introduced the measure on Monday to honor the memory of Hanna Harris, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who was murdered in 2013 at the age of 21. He called the violence suffered by Native women and girls a "devastating epidemic" that the government must help address.

Yet uncertainty, rumors and even fear have clouded the issue with the arrival of Republican President Donald Trump in the nation's capital. His pick to lead the Department of Justice is a former U.S. Senator who has openly questioned whether tribes should be able to arrest, prosecute and punish non-Indians who abuse their partners.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who helped coordinate the briefing on Wednesday, took on those concerns head on as she defended her decision to support Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. She said violence against Native women "was the only subject we discussed" when her colleague came to her office for a meeting before the confirmation vote earlier this month.

"Those of us who fight for the safety of Native women in Congress are not going to let Attorney General Sessions forget what his obligation is," Murkowski said to applause.

During his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions said he opposed VAWA because he believed the tribal jurisdiction provisions to be legally suspect. The law allows non-Indians to bring challenges into the federal court system and it requires tribes, which are separate sovereigns governed by their own constitutions, to protect the rights of all defendants.

But Murkowski said those concerns do not square with the facts on the ground. Since tribes began holding non-Indian abusers accountable in connection with the law, no challenges have been filed.

"All of the chatter, all of the fear that we are going to have all these prolonged constitutional challenges, they didn't materialize," Murkowski said.

The strong track record is prompting lawmakers to seek additional recognitions of tribal authority. Murkowski said she and Democratic colleagues intend to re-introduce legislation to close gaps in VAWA in order to drug-related crimes as well as crimes against children and law enforcement officers in Indian Country.

The voices of Native women remain instrumental in advancing those efforts. Daines said tribal advocates from his state convinced him to vote for VAWA when he was a new member in the House.

"I went from not being sure on VAWA to breaking party lines ... and supporting VAWA ," he said of his vote back in February 2013.

But it's not just officials in power that need to be aware, according to Native women. Except for social media outlets and grassroots groups, they said the stories of their sisters tend to go ignored in mainstream society.

“Indigenous women go missing twice — once in real life and the second time in the news,” said Amanda Takes War Bonnet of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, relaying a quote from Laura Madison, another advocate for missing and murdered sisters.

Takes War Bonnet, who is a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, knows from experience. Her aunt went missing when she was 10 years old and there was little attention paid to the case even as her family suspected foul play. Her aunt was a mother of three and was pregnant at the time of her sudden disappearance, War Bonnet said.

If it weren't for the persistence of a single police officer, who found her aunt's body after a two-year search, she believes the case would have gone ignored. Her aunt's husband was eventually convicted of murder, she said.

To keep similar stories from being forgotten, Takes War Bonnet's organization works with families to create a miniature traditional dress for their loved ones. She brought one in honor of Emily Blue Bird, a 24-year-old mother of two who was murdered in January, The Lakota Country Times reported, as she read the names of eight recent cases of missing and murdered women in the Great Plains.

"Historically, we identified ourselves by our dress and it is fitting to represent our sisters lost to the identity of their dress," Takes War Bonnet said. "We will use this traveling display to promote awareness in our communities and to increase protocols for the development of networking between tribes, states and national agencies for more effective action."

In Canada, the government has launched an official inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. The effort is being overseen by five commissioners, three of whom are Native women, and is being led by Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is the first Native woman to serve as that nation's Minister of Justice and Attorney General.

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