“A Righteous Cause”: Senator Booker Backs Bipartisan Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women Legislation

Published February 2, 2019

NEWARK, N.J. — “A righteous cause” is how Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) described the proactive campaign of a tribal alliance to counter the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) crisis. As he announced his 2020 Presidential candidacy Friday, Booker emphasized, “I believe that we can build a country where no one is forgotten, no one is left behind,” and “where our criminal justice system keeps us safe, instead of shuffling more children into cages and coffins.” Booker’s colleague, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) has categorized the MMIWG tragedy as “an epidemic,” while his fellow 2020 Presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), has classified it “a human rights issue.”

Senator Cory Booker

According to the National Crime Information Center, nearly 6,000 MMIWG cases were cataloged in 2016, a figure widely considered to be low, due to underreporting and inadequate data collection.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Savanna’s Act, introduced to the 115th Congress by former Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and co-sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), was intended to address some of the jurisdictional paralysis and failings in existing law and its application in respect to Indian Country and specifically the MMIW epidemic. Despite passage in the Senate, the Act was blocked in the House Judiciary Committee by former Chairman, Representative Bob Goodlatte. In December 2018, Senator Murkowski committed to an alliance of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, and the Global Indigenous Council that she would reintroduce Savanna’s Act. With Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-NV) as co-sponsor, she fulfilled that commitment this week. Murkowski also co-sponsored the Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act and the Native Youth and Tribal Officer Protection Act with Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Senator Tina Smith (D-MN).

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

Named in memory of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a Spirit Lake Sioux tribal citizen who was brutally murdered in 2017, Savanna’s Act will improve data collection and sharing on MMIW cases. Murkowski has consistently warned that authorities don’t realize the scope of the problem. “We don’t even know what we don’t know with this. We don’t know if our statistics are right. We know that they’re bad, but we don’t know how bad.”

“I want to thank the Global Indigenous Council for its leadership and for bringing together the alliance of tribal organizations to push for action,” Senator Murkowski said. The Global Indigenous Council (GIC) introduced a national MMIWG billboard campaign to the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC) and the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA) last summer, since when the allied-groups that represent tribal nations across a vast swathe of the western US have been lobbying on Capitol Hill for a legislative response to the MMIW crisis.

The three bills introduced by Senators Murkowski, Udall, Smith and Cortez-Masto incorporate the recommendations made by the GIC-RMTLC-GPTCA alliance, from establishing “standard response and investigative protocols that reflect the unique circumstances and challenges of MMIWG cases,” to “access to culturally appropriate victim services for victims and their families,” to “increased interagency coordination.” A priority for the tribal alliance was to strengthen and extend the jurisdiction of tribal courts to cover MMIWG crimes, which is the foundation of the Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act.

Rep. Deb Haaland

In Congress, Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Vice Chairwoman Deb Haaland (D-NM) on the House Natural Resources Committee are committed to MMIWG legislation. Congresswoman Haaland was the first lawmaker to actively support the GIC-RMTLC-GPTCA alliance’s MMIW billboard campaign that recently launched in South Dakota. Governor Kristi Noem (R), the state’s first female governor, offered her full support for the campaign, after which South Dakota State legislators led by Lakota tribal members Senator Red Dawn Foster and Representatives Shawn Bordeaux and Peri Pourier, introduced three MMIWG-related bills to the legislature.

“This is a very important campaign and it will bring much needed awareness to the ongoing tragedy,” added Senator Murkowski, a sentiment echoed by Senator Heidi Heitkamp who described the billboard campaign as “one of the most powerful and important things” to undertake while legislation awaits passage. The campaign entered Montana this week, where on Wednesday Lame Deer Representative Rae Peppers introduced Hanna’s Act to the State Legislature in Helena. Named in honor of Hanna Harris, a Northern Cheyenne MMIW victim, Hanna’s mother, Malinda, and sister, Rose, were among those who testified before Montana’s House Judiciary Committee in support of the bill. Later that day, at a packed Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council reception, relatives of Ashley Loring Heavy Runner, a 20-year-old Blackfeet tribal member who has been missing since June 12, 2017, expressed the pain and frustration of victims’ families.

“Ashley’s case was not taken seriously from the very beginning,” read Lili Ann Tatsey, Ashley’s cousin, from a statement written by Ashley’s sister, Kimberly. “Law enforcement let Ashley down because they did not have proper training, nor did they follow protocol when dealing with her case. Unfortunately, Ashley’s story is not unique but the same as many other MMIW. Ashley had dreams and she had goals! Being a missing and murdered indigenous woman was not one of them.”

Montana is among the states that has previously declined to share MMIW data with the Center for Disease Control and other organizations compiling reports to provide insights into the crisis. “Even if Hanna’s Act passes, Governor Steve Bullock is going to come under pressure to sign a sweeping Executive Order on MMIW,” predicted veteran political consultant, Tom Rodgers.

“Rain (Bear Stands Last) and Tom Rodgers have been the driving force on Capitol Hill for this legislation in recent months and for the national billboard campaign,” said Brandon Sazue, President of Global Indigenous Council.

“Our only client here is justice,” responded Rodgers. “In 15-years of conflict in Iraq the US has suffered 4,541 fatalities. In 2016 alone, there were 5,712 reported MMIWG cases in the US. That should provide pause and context. We need to keep pushing on legislation until it is signed into law and ensure that Congress appropriates the funds to implement the legislation.”

“With Senators Murkowski, Udall, Smith and Booker, and Representatives Grijalva and Haaland, we’re seeing action, not talk. This isn’t an inquiry. The time for platitudes passed long ago. This legislation and every gain made to counter the MMIWG tragedy is a consequence of the collective efforts of many groups, of many grassroots organizers, of those who have marched in the streets, of those who have taken to social media. Those giving voice to the silenced are united and resolute. The coalition of conscience is rising,” observed Bear Stands Last.

Conceptualized for the tribal alliance by Alter-Native Media, the MMIW billboard campaign is scheduled to expand into locations identified in the 2018 Urban Indian Health Institute report as having the highest incidences of MMIW cases. South Dakota was selected as the start point as the state’s Lakota-Dakota Nations are in the eye of the human trafficking storm, on the I-90 corridor between Billings, Montana, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Both cities are hubs from which Native women and minors are trafficked to the Bakken fracking fields and beyond. Tribes in South Dakota are bracing for two 1,400-man extractive industry Keystone-XL “man camps” to be raised by summer 2019 in proximity to reservation boundaries.

“With the occupation of ‘man camps’ in the Bakken, sexual assaults on the neighboring Fort Berthold Indian Reservation of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara escalated at an alarming rate. We must be prepared,” warned A. Gay Kingman, GPTCA Executive Director.

As she held back tears and breathed deeply, Lili Ann Tatsey closed her appeal. “Don’t forget Ashley, remember her name. Ashley Heavy Runner Loring is important. Our people are important.”

For more informaton, go to: www.mmiw-gic.com

(Photos © Alter-Native Media)

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