Jasmine Harden carries a sacred staff as part of a run to the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, that took place in January 2018 to raise awareness about missing and murdered Native women. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

'Our lives don't matter': Native women demand action for missing sisters

LINCOLN, Nebraska -- April Marie Satchell carried her infant granddaughter to the front of a legislative chamber here on Thursday and put the child on her lap facing a half dozen state senators.

As the baby cooed and played with a toy, the Rosebud Lakota grandmother tried to convince the senators to take action to protect the child.

“Right now, our lives don’t matter,” Satchell said. “A non-Native man can rape us, murder us, and as long as we don’t know who that person is, the law right now does not protect us.”

Satchell was describing the inability of tribal courts to prosecute non-Native men who commit crimes on reservations against Native women with whom they’re not romantically involved. She said the lack of jurisdiction of tribal courts over such men is just one of the many reasons that Native women are far more likely to be assaulted than other women.

Among the statistics she and others who testified this week cited were: 80 percent of Native women have experienced violence; homicide is the third-leading cause of death among Native females ages 10 to 24; and Native women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than other men or women.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Missing and Murdered Native Women in Nebraska

Satchell offered her testimony to the Judiciary Committee of the Nebraska Legislature this week during a hearing on LB154, a bill that would require the Nebraska State Patrol to study ways to improve the gathering of data related to missing Native women in Nebraska.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Tom Brewer, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said the bill would require the State Patrol to work with tribal, state and federal law enforcement agencies to gather information in order to determine the scope of the problem of missing Native women, barriers to gathering data and ways to create partnerships to improve reporting and investigation of missing Native women.

The State Patrol would be required to submit its study to the Legislature by June 1, 2020.

“The bill attempts to answer a very serious question: Why do Native American women turn up missing in numbers far more than the national average for every other demographic?” said Brewer, who is the first Native senator in Nebraska. “The aim of the study is to learn how we can better use or increase our state criminal justice resources to the reporting and identifying of missing Native American women in Nebraska.”

He said Native people, especially those living on reservations, face unique challenges because of how many different law enforcement agencies – including those run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, FBI and states – have criminal jurisdiction over certain crimes committed on tribal lands. He said those various law enforcement agencies often fail to communicate with each other regarding criminal investigations.

“This failure to communicate between these agencies has left a no man’s land where people can fall through the cracks, and there is not a way to track the numbers and have the accountability we need,” he said.

Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brewer, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, is the sponsor of LB154, a bill to improve reporting and investigation of missing Native American women. Photo: Nebraska Legislature

The Judiciary Committee took no action this week on the bill, which is co-sponsored by state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks. If it approves the bill, it would then go before the full Legislature.

The bill is similar to one passed in Washington state last year that directed its state patrol to conduct a study focused on improving the reporting and investigation of missing Native women.

A study published in November by the Urban Indian Health Institute of Seattle examined 506 cases of missing Native women across the country. The study found 95 percent of those cases were not covered by media beyond the communities where those women lived. And one case alone – that of Savanna Marie Greywind, a citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation who was pregnant when she was murdered by a neighbor in Fargo in 2017 – took up 47 percent of that national coverage.

Greywind's murder sparked a bill known as Savanna’s Act, which would require the Department of Justice, for the first time, to provide annual reports on the "known statistics on missing and murdered Indian women in the United States." The Senate passed the measure in December, but the U.S. House of Representatives failed to take action before the end of the last session of Congress so it must be reintroduced again.

Renee Sans Souci, a citizen of the Omaha Tribe, is seen speaking at a rally in Lincoln, Nebraska, on January 20, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

At the legislative hearing in Lincoln this week, Scott Shafer of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs said the problem of missing Native women can’t be addressed until adequate information can be gathered to gauge the extent of the problem.

He said many obstacles currently prevent such data collection, including under-reporting of crimes, racial misclassification and poor relationships between tribal and off-reservation law enforcement agencies.

And he urged state senators to also consider the plight of Native women living in urban areas as they considered ways to improve data gathering and investigation of missing Native women.

“This is not just a reservation-based, at-risk population,” he said. “More indigenous women live in urban areas, such as Lincoln and Omaha, than live on reservations.”

Renee Sans Souci, a citizen of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, said she knows of at least one young Native woman in Lincoln who is currently missing and she believes others are missing as well.

She told the story of a former student of hers who disappeared. She said she struggled to get local media to post stories about the young woman’s disappearance.

Luckily, the young woman returned home unharmed.

For her part, Sans Souci said she teaches her own children how to protect themselves from potential violence.

“I maintain a hypervigilance over my children,” she said. “I am certain that I am not the only Native mother who does this."

"It is exhausting.”

#MMIW in Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota
In addition to Sen. Tom Brewer in Nebraska, Native lawmakers in other states are taking action to address missing and murdered Native women.

Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein (D), a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, introduced HF0070 and HF0111 in Minnesota this month. "This is only one way to honor those we’ve lost but not forgotten," she wrote in a post on Twitter.

In Montana, Rep. Rae Peppers (D), a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, introduced HB 21. The bill is known as Hanna's Act in honor of Hanna Harris, a young Cheyenne woman who went missing in 2013 and was found murdered.

And in North Dakota, where Savanna Marie Greywind was kidnapped and murdered, Rep. Ruth Buffalo (D), a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, introduced HB 1311 and HB 1313.

North Dakota Rep. Ruth Buffalo (D) filed two bills [HB 1311 and HB 1313] to address missing and murdered Indigenous people. Photo: Ruth Ann Buffalo

'Shameful': Inaction on #MMIW in Congress
Watch: Rep. Norma Torres (D-California) on Savanna's Act #MMIW MMIWG

A bill to address missing and murdered Native women on the national level failed at the end of the 115th session of Congress.

"Shameful" is how Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), a supporter of a bill known as Savanna's Act, said of the last-minute holdup.

Savanna's Act, named in honor of Savanna Marie Greywind, a 22-year-old woman from the Spirit Lake Nation who was murdered after she went missing in North Dakota in 2017, passed the Senate but was blocked in the House by a Republican who no longer serves in office. The bill must be reintroduced in the 116th Congress.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Cronkite News: Native women raise awareness of missing and murdered sisters (January 23, 2019)
Meskwaki Nation offers $50K reward for woman missing since January 2015 (January 17, 2019)
'Shameful': Congress fails to take action on missing and murdered Indigenous women (January 10, 2019)
'Broken Trust': Police rebuked for supicious deaths and racism against Indigenous people (December 17, 2018)
'It's open season': Few answers at hearing on missing and murdered (December 13, 2018)
'Silent Crisis': The missing and murdered in Indian Country (December 11, 2018)
Albert Bender: Racism to blame for missing and murdered Native people (December 7, 2018)
Hearing scheduled on missing and murdered in Indian Country (December 5, 2018)
Arrest made in connection with murder of Navajo Nation woman (December 4, 2018)
Native woman missing after going to casino nearly two months ago (November 26, 2018)
Indian Country legislative agenda falls behind in the Trump era (November 19, 2018)
Graham Lee Brewer: Report shines light on missing and murdered sisters (November 19, 2018)
Cronkite News: Native women hold annual prayer run in Arizona (November 19, 2018)
Albert Bender: Young Hoopa woman found murdered in California (November 16, 2018)
Cronkite News: Report looks at missing and murdered sisters (November 15, 2018)
Lakota woman remains in critical condition after brutal attack (November 13, 2018)
Bill to address missing and murdered sisters scheduled for action (November 12, 2018)
Lakota woman fighting for her life after brutal beating (November 9, 2018)
Another tribe asserts authority over non-Indians as VAWA remains in limbo (November 2, 2018)
Bill planned to address missing and murdered Native women (October 11, 2018)
Hearing addresses high rates of violence against Native women (October 4, 2018)
'We need action': Native women seek solutions on Capitol Hill (September 20, 2018)
Deleana OtherBull: Native women deserve to be safe (September 18, 2018)
Tribes consulted on first-ever count of missing Native women (September 17, 2018)
Associated Press runs series on 'Missing in Indian Country' (September 5, 2018)
The missing and murdered: 'We as Native women are hunted' (August 27, 2018)
Associated Press runs series on 'Missing in Indian Country' (September 5, 2018)
'Nine months of looking': Olivia Lone Bear's body recovered on reservation (August 6, 2018)
'Native women can't wait': Bill expands tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians (July 26, 2018)
'No more stolen sisters!': Events raise awareness of the missing and murdered (May 9, 2018)
Mary Annette Pember: Little data on missing and murdered Native women and girls (May 8, 2018)
Graham Lee Brewer: Change comes too slow for missing and murdered sisters (May 7, 2018)
Mary Annette Pember: New tool tracks missing and murdered indigenous women (May 1, 2018)
Senate declares May 5 as day of awareness for missing and murdered sisters (April 26, 2018)
Mary Annette Pember: Efforts grow for missing and murdered sisters (April 2, 2018)
Sacred run raises awareness of missing and murdered Native women (January 31, 2018)
Trending in News
More Headlines