This Bill Addressing Violence Against Native Women Could Bring Real Change, Senators Say

By Monica Busch
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The lack of concrete data surrounding missing and murdered Native American women can make the problem difficult for law enforcement, legislators, and advocates to combat. A new bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate this week, the Not Invisible Act, would tackle violence against Native women through a joint committee made up of tribal, local, and federal leaders. Sponsored by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jon Tester, some of these lawmakers tell Bustle that they hope this collaborative effort will bring about concrete change.

"It should be a bipartisan issue to make sure that all women, all people, are protected — that if there is violence committed, there is justice afforded," Murkowski says.

In conjunction with the Departments of Justice and the Interior, the Not Invisible Act would establish an advisory committee tasked with coming up with "recommendations ... on actions the departments can take to help combat violent crime against Indians and within Indian lands," according to a copy of the bill published by HuffPost.

The committee will include members of tribal law enforcement, state and local law enforcement, as well as representatives from the Justice Department's Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, among others. Members of the committee will have 18 months to make a number of recommendations, including strategies to identify and respond to "instances of missing persons, murder, and human trafficking," as well as for tracking and reporting related data, per the legislation.

“A lack of communication and coordination between the federal government and tribal communities in cases involving missing, murdered, and trafficked Indigenous women has slowed law enforcement and delayed justice,” Tester, one of the bill's cosponsors, tells Bustle in a statement. “We have to do better at addressing this crisis."

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Although available numbers make it clear that violence against Native American women is a startlingly common and under-addressed issue, Murkowski says a lot of concrete data is still missing — and that's a major obstacle for advocates working to solve the problem.

"I think [what] we're still struggling with is understanding how much we don't know [about such violence]," Murkowski says.

The data that has been compiled, however, highlights disturbing trends. Murkowski points to a figure that indicates that, in some tribal areas, the murder rate for Native women is 10 times the national average. Or, for example, she cites studies that suggest 80 percent of Native American adults living in tribal areas experience violence in their lifetime.

The Alaska senator also highlights the hundreds of Native women who are missing, or who have been murdered or become victims of human trafficking. About 506 Native American women are missing or have been murdered, and more than 300 of those cases have taken place since 2010, according to a November report by the Urban Indian Health Institute. Of those 506 cases, about a quarter were classified as missing persons cases, a little over half were classified as murder cases, and 19 percent had what the institute classified as an "unknown status," per the report.

Lori Jump, the assistant director of StrongHearts Native Helpline, which provides resources to Native Americans impacted by domestic violence, tells Bustle that part of the challenge lies in the lack of federal guidelines for responding to violence on tribal land. Jump says that one reason that she believes violence against Native women is difficult to track and respond to on a national level is that there is no formal system to do so.

"I think it's the lack of a significant protocol for the federal response," she says. According to Jump, there are nearly 600 tribal nations who all respond to reports of violence or missing women based on their own procedures. Establishing guidelines, as sponsors of the Not Invisible Act hope the bill will do, could help streamline that process.

"Because of jurisdictional issues, tribes may not have the authority to prosecute cases, and we look to the federal government to do that on our behalf," Jump says. "If that doesn't happen, you know, there's no means to track these cases across the country."

Several weeks ago, Murkowski also reintroduced Savanna's Act, a piece of legislation that passed the Senate, but stalled in the House last year. That bill would streamline data collection efforts among tribal, local, and federal agencies, according to HuffPost, to help authorities better track the pervasiveness of violence against Native women. It would also put guidelines in place for responding to instances of reported or potential violence against Native women, per HuffPost.

Savanna's Act, in conjunction with the Not Invisible Act, is part of a concerted effort by lawmakers to make sense of and tackle violence against Native Women. While Savanna's Act would institute a program for data collection and put new response guidelines in place, the Not Invisible Act establishes a diverse leadership body that would provide procedural recommendations.

Jump says that she wants Native women to be afforded the same opportunity to seek justice as any non-Native person.

"We just want our women to be as safe as any other women," Jump says. "We want our women to have access to the same type of justice that other women have. And, you know, the structure of the criminal justice system that we rely upon, doesn't offer that to us. But our women are just as worthy as any other women."