The epidemic of missing, murdered Indigenous women and its impact on Indian Country

National News

FILE – In a Monday, Aug. 28, 2017 file photo, a makeshift memorial to Savanna Greywind featuring a painting, flowers, candle and a stuffed animal is seen on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Fargo, N.D., outside the apartment where Greywind lived with her parents. Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski from Alaska is taking up the cause for a bill aimed at helping law enforcement with cases of murdered and missing indigenous women. Former North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp introduced and helped pass Savanna’s Act in the Senate before she lost election, but it was blocked in the House by a retiring Republican. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack, File)

(WJMN) – The U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) finds that American Indian women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average and four out of five Native women will experience some form of violence in their lifetime. Many people may be wondering the same thing: why? Whitney Gravelle, the tribal attorney for the Bay Mills Indian Community, said it’s due to a lack of resources, law enforcement jurisdiction, and inter-generational trauma.

“Only tribes or the federal government can assert jurisdiction over crimes committed on reservations unless you’re like a [Public Law] 280 out in the west. But, when you have a non-Indian perpetrator on the reservation, the only person who can assert jurisdiction over that non-native is the federal government. So when you have a case of murder, rape, stalking, or violence, the only individuals who can come in on reservation and actually assert jurisdiction is the federal government,” said Gravelle.

When a tribe reports a case related to a non-native to the federal government, the DOJ reports show that 67 percent of those cases are declined. Cases being declined may vary, but many are due to a lack of evidence or a statement that the crime never happened.

Gravelle said the lack of action has long-lasting impacts on Indigenous peoples.

“In my conversations with my family members and other women within Bay Mills, there is a very strong sense of helplessness. Often times they wonder why they should call law enforcement if they’re not able to do anything if they’re not able to prosecute those cases? How likely is the federal government to pick that up? And they really feel left alone, vulnerable, scared, and almost trapped in their current cycle of abuse without any way out because there’s no opportunity for them to seek help or get protection.”

So what is being done about missing and murdered Indigenous peoples/women in Michigan and the United States?

In July 2020, the DOJ appointed Michigan’s first Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons coordinator. Upper Peninsula-native, Joel Postma, was appointed the position. Bay Mills Indian Community Tribal Council and other members met with Postma back in August where they discussed gathering data and what solutions can be made to increase communication between state, federal, and tribal governments.

President Donald Trump signed Savanna’s Act into law on October 10, 2020. This bill directs the DOJ to review, revise, and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing or murdered Native Americans. The bill authorizes DOJ to provide grants for the purposes of (1) developing and implementing policies and protocols for law enforcement regarding cases of missing or murdered Native Americans, and (2) compiling and annually reporting data relating to missing or murdered Native Americans. Finally, the Federal Bureau of Investigation must include gender in its annual statistics on missing and unidentified persons published on its website.

To read more about Savanna’s Act, click here.

In a Facebook post from BMIC Tribal Chairman Bryan Newland on October 13, he made the announcement of a new tribal law that will allow tribal citizens to bring forth civil claims against offenders who commit domestic or sexual acts on tribal land:

“This afternoon the Executive Council adopted a new tribal law to provide our tribal citizens a measure of justice against people who commit acts of domestic or sexual violence on our lands. Supreme Court precedent prevents Indian tribes from exercising criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Often, domestic violence and sexual assault cases in Indian country go without prosecution by the Federal Government.

In the past 40 years, this has led to an increase in violence against Indian women. Under the new law that our Council adopted today, individuals will be able to bring civil claims against violent offenders in Tribal Court for a wide range of remedies, including • Restitution • Personal Protection Orders • Temporary banishment • Costs of damages (including medical bills)• Preventing abusers from possessing firearms on the Reservation • Termination of lease• Civil fines were the offender is non-Indian, victims will have the ability to request the Tribal Prosecutor to bring these civil claims on their behalf.

This law is a path-breaking approach to domestic and sexual violence in Indian country; but, it also highlights the lengths that Tribes must go to under Federal law in order to keep people safe in their communities. Miigwetch to our Executive Council, Victim’s Advocates, Social Services Staff, BMPD leadership, and attorneys for putting this together and working to keep people safe in our community.”

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