U.S. Justice Department data shows Native women are 10 times as likely to be murdered as other Americans. They’re four times as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted.
“It is a human tragedy and it's also a stain on these United States; on the consciousness of this country that allows this to continue to happen,” says Jacqueline Agtuca with the Lame Deer-based National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.
Today Agtuca and her organization’s allies met in Lame Deer to march and speak out against the epidemic of violence against indigenous women.
Agtuca says there’s no good data tracking what many Native people say is a growing trend of Native American women disappearing:
"And that pattern is that there’s a disappearance, there’s a report, there’s an inadequate – or no – response by law enforcement. Then the community acts by itself. Sometimes we have children, grandparents and the family doing searches that really should be the responsibility of law enforcement."
She says that’s unacceptable, and officials at the highest levels of government need to say, "We acknowledge it and this is what we’re going to do to correct the problem."
"We don’t see that happening at the federal level," Agtuca says.
Yellowstone Public Radio’s Brie Ripley has been talking to law enforcement and government officials responsible for investigating and prosecuting these crimes. Here's what Ripley found out:
Brie Ripley: Well first I called Leif Johnson, who has been the acting U.S. Attorney for Montana since March when the Trump administration dismissed U.S. Attorneys nationwide who were put in place by President Obama.
Johnson told me that violence against Native women and girls is one of the most important issues to address in Indian country today.
"And I think Congress agrees and it has taken a number of steps to give us more tools to deal with that problem," Johnson said.
Edward O'Brien: What’s an example of one of those tools?
BR: A great example Johnson spoke to me about, and he mentioned over a half-dozen, is the Native Shield Initiative.
“It’s essentially our effort to coordinate with tribes to help train tribal prosecutors, tribal law enforcement and other interested parties in Indian country to help bring these cases to justice and to help develop cases that can meet our thresholds in federal court.”
BR: Johnson said that survivors of this kind of abuse, sexual and domestic, are often reluctant to alert authorities about what they’ve endured.
"And that is often a real challenge, and so we’re dealing with that right now and that’s one of our initiatives," Johnson said.
EO: So the Justice Department is pushing a multi-disciplinary approach?
BR: A big goal for Montana’s U.S. Attorney office right now is more successful prosecutions across the board by taking multidisciplinary approaches to these kinds of crimes.
"The bottom line is the rates are very high comparatively in Indian country. There’s just high rates of domestic and sexual abuse," Johnson said.
EO: It’s clearly a crisis, which begs the question, how many law enforcement officials are working on it right now?
BR: I also spoke to FBI Special Agent Travis Burrows to find this out. He’s the supervisory resident agent, which means he supervises the Eastern Montana squad of agents working with tribal officials to combat and prevent crime. He told me that in total there are nearly 3 dozen FBI agents working on reservations in the state. And he referenced another tool they use to combat crimes against women and girls on reservations, and that came out of a Supreme court case in June 2016 called U.S. v Bryant. It’s a habitual offender of domestic violence violation.
"I think that Native American women are exposed to a lot of trauma and a lot of violence throughout their lives and that gives us one more tool in the toolbox to help statutorily, or at least in an investigation,” Burrows said.
Agent Burrows said that he feels a responsibility to protect Native women and children:
"And really, if you go back 150 years to the treaties that were signed in the late 1800s, the U.S. government promised the tribes at that the tribes that they would do that. That they could look after and protect these tribes. And it’s important to remember that. And I think today it’s easy to forget that. Everybody in the public is busy. But that’s not just our job, it’s our responsibility. And it would be no different if they were working counter-terrorism investigations in Los Angeles. They would be 100 percent dedicated to that.”
EO: I know that Jacqueline Agtuca of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center in Lame Deer would like that as well, but for now, she’ll believe it when she actually sees it.
I’ll leave you with this tidbit; Ms. Agtuca and I were wrapping up our conversation and she told me how much she appreciates that Public Radio reached out to her:
Jacqueline Agtuca: You don’t know how silent it’s been.
EO: What do you mean, "How silent it’s been"?
JA: Well, if the murder rate for the population in, I dunno, Minneapolis was 10 times higher than the rest of the country, I think you would have a response to it. That’s our rate, and there’s no response."
EO: She says many Native Americans take that as a sign that the dominant culture thinks that’s an acceptable murder rate for indigenous women. It certainly is not.