Violent crime against Native American women is at a crisis level, and the federal government’s response to it is failing, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto says.
“What I’ve seen of the federal agencies that work with our tribal communities, they are inept right now,” Cortez Masto said last week. “There’s a lot of chaos. There’s a lot of mismanagement, there’s not a lot of people in positions they should be. There are some good people in there trying to do the right thing, but they are quite often understaffed and under-resourced. And we’ve got to do a better job.”
As of 2016, there were 5,712 cases of missing Native American women reported to the National Crime Information Center, though the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing person database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that American Indian and Alaska Native women experience among the highest rates of homicide in the U.S., and that rates of violence on reservations can be up to ten times higher than the national average.
“It is a crisis in our tribal communities,” Cortez Masto said. “It is a human rights issue that needs to be addressed. There’s too much violence and it is devastating within our tribal communities.”
Cortez Masto, who serves on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has co-sponsored legislation to expand tribal access to some federal crime databases, establish clearer law enforcement guidelines for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans, and require annual reports on the number of missing and murdered Native American women. The bill, called Savanna’s Act, passed out of Indian Affairs last week.
The name of the act comes from a disturbing case out of North Dakota last year, when a 22-year-old Native American woman went missing while eight months pregnant. Her remains were later found in a river, her infant daughter having been cut from her womb.
“The data is not there,” said Cortez Masto, discussing the act with the CSN Native American Alliance last week. “It’s under-reported. There’s a lack of data, there’s a lack of coordination, there’s a lack of respecting the culture and understanding it.”
“The people that I have met that have been victims, or the families that have lost loved ones that I have met, and have no idea what happened to their loved ones… I don’t know of any other heartbreak that I’ve seen ever in my entire career as a criminal prosecutor, over ten years, than talking to these families and talking with these young girls, and some boys, who have been trafficked, or the families that have lost loved ones that have gone missing. And it is time for us as a country to focus on this, particularly within our tribal communities.”
Cortez Masto said collaboration and support among agencies combating sex trafficking in Nevada is not happening within tribal communities. On top of that, many tribal communities do not have the resources to hire tribal law enforcement and are forced to rely on federal authorities to police their communities.
A new study by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board, sought to place a spotlight on such cases by reviewing a variety of data from 71 cities across 29 states, including Reno (Las Vegas was not included). According to the study, no research has been done on rates of violence among American Indian and Alaska Native women living in urban areas, despite the fact that about 71 percent of American Indian and Alaska Natives live in cities.
Researchers for the study filed FOIA requests with municipal police departments. The Reno Police Department (RPD) was among six agencies that never responded to the FOIA request for data, according to the report.
Annita Lucchesi, a Southern Cheyenne doctoral student and researcher for UIHI, said communication with the Reno General Records division to submit a records request to the appropriate agency was slow and laborious, adding that the RPD did not respond to their records request submitted in August or multiple follow-up messages until the day after the report’s Oct. 15 cut off date.
A spokesperson for the Reno Police Department said their records show they first received a formal FOIA request for data on Oct. 16 and responded on Oct. 24, but could not immediately confirm whether they had received a records request or emails before then.
The request was ultimately denied because the large data range requested could not be obtained without significant staff time to compile the data, according to the RPD.
Similarly, researchers had difficulty communicating with other Nevada agencies. The Department of Corrections of Nevada did not respond to a records request or multiple messages submitted through MuckRock, a non-profit site that files, tracks, and shares public records requests.
“Law enforcement is not making this data available to the public, which makes it hard for communities to respond to the violence,” Lucchesi said. “It’s not just law enforcement or government agencies that respond. It’s service providers, it’s researchers, it’s community members. There’s all sort of people who are involved in supporting these families through their horrific loss. If we don’t have information on what’s happening on a community level we won’t be able to respond in a preventative capacity.”
Lucchesi said she believes the research they have done is the first major step in providing data so policymakers can make informed decisions on legislature, like Savannah’s Act, and determine how best to respond and move forward.
Only one case of a missing or murdered indigenous woman in Nevada was recorded in the report. It had an “unknown status,” meaning it was not known whether the person missing was ultimately found. This is almost assuredly an undercount due to the lack of data, according to the report.
“Until there is cooperation and better tracking systems at all government levels, the data on missing and murdered Indigenous women will never be 100 percent accurate, which is what we need to strive for in order to protect our mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunties,” wrote Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, in the report.
Rarely is a tribal nation notified or given access to the data regarding their missing or murdered tribal citizens, a courtesy advocates argue should be extended to tribal lands as sovereign nations.
Beyond lack of data, Cortez Masto said procedural barriers to resources thwart tribal efforts to improve health and safety conditions in tribal communities.
“We make it very difficult for our tribes to access money we set aside for them,” Cortez Masto said.
“It’s really hard for tribes to get federal funding,” said Crystal Lee, a Navajo biomedical researcher focused on health-related difficulties common to Native Americans, who spoke at the CSN event. “Grants are structured in a way that’s very technical and a lot of the tribes don’t have the technical skills or the manpower and hours to write a grant.”
Cortez Masto is also a sponsor of the End Trafficking of Native Americans Act of 2018, a bill she introduced that seeks to establish an advisory committee on human trafficking comprised of law enforcement, tribal leaders, and service providers to make recommendations on combating human trafficking of Native Americans and Alaska Natives. The bill would also establish a Human Trafficking Prevention Coordinator within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to coordinate human trafficking prevention efforts across federal agencies.
“We just had a historic election,” Cortez Masto said. “We just elected two Native American women to Congress for the first time. And so we’ve got to continue at all levels and not just in Congress, not just elected officials, in our law enforcement, everywhere. This is a call to action.”