In front of a packed house, three Native American women told U.S. senators what everyone in Indian Country knows to be truth: The United States is failing Native women.
The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held an oversight hearing on Wednesday, during which senators and three Native leaders admonished a trio of federal justice officials representing their agencies. The hearing was called by Sen. Jon Tester and Sen. Steve Daines and came in response to repeated calls to finally address the federal government’s ongoing failure to adequately address the persistently high levels of violence against Native women.
As was shown in a study by the Urban Indian Health Institute, just 116 of 5,712 cases of murdered or missing Native women were logged in the Department of Justice’s nationwide database. U.S. attorneys’ offices declined to proceed with 37 percent of cases stemming from Indian Country, according to a 2017 report published by the Department of Justice; 7o percent of those declined cases were due to lack of evidence.
The law enforcement representatives on hand were Charles Addington, the deputy associate director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Robert Johnson, an assistant director within the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, and Gerald Laporte, director of the National Institute of Justice.
After Tester got all three officials to admit there was a problem with missing and murdered Native women, he asked bluntly where the problem stems from. Addington said this agency doesn’t always mesh well with the FBI because the BIA is limited in that it can only step in on cases on a reservation. After the FBI and NIJ officials failed to answer the question, Tester frustratedly ceded his time.
“Something’s not happening here. I can keep going down this [path] but we’re not getting anywhere here,” Tester said. “Something is not happening that needs to happen.”
When her time for questioning came up, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp damn near spit-roasted the FBI representative. After inquiring about the proximity of FBI offices to Native land in North Dakota, she informed him she’d actually visited those offices, where she was told officers there routinely work 100-hour weeks, leaving them stretched thin.
“This is not new,” Heitkamp said. “And I would suggest that if you want to come here and offer solutions, then maybe you should have pulled a couple case files and said, ‘What went wrong?’ I would suggest you spend time with your agents in the field and find out what they need. They need more agents. These are violent crimes that are being committed against Native people and it’s going unattended to. I can’t say enough: This is your problem. And [the BIA and FBI] need to figure out how to work together.”
A second panel featuring a trio of Native women and tribal leaders addressed the committee after the law enforcement officials—this included Patricia Alexander, of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Amber Crotty of the Navajo Nation, and Kimberly Loring-Heavy Runner of the Blackfeet Tribe.
In her opening statement, Alexander tearfully read aloud the names of Native women that remain missing. Loring-Heavy Runner also poured her heart out for the committee, recounting the pain of knowing her sister Ashley remains missing after 18 months.
“Two months after she went missing, the BIA was still stating that Ashley is of age and is able to leave whenever she wants to,” Loring-Heavy Runner said. “That is not a proper response to a woman that’s been missing for two months... That is just ridiculous.”
During their round of questioning, when addressing the testimonies of the law enforcement officials, Loring-Heavy Runner said: “All the things they spoke about doing today, they did not do with Ashley’s case.”
“It needs to be fixed, however it needs to be fixed,” Alexander said.
In perhaps the most telling point brought up all afternoon, Crotty noted in her opening statement that both Johnson and Laporte dashed out of the hearing as soon as their time was up. Only the BIA representative stuck around to hear from the women actually affected by this issue.