Three Indigenous women testified at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday to share stories of personal loss and profound frustration with a legal system that they say has essentially abandoned them.
"I wear this yellow scarf in honor of our baby-girl Ashlynne Mike who was taken from us in 2016 when her and her brother Ian were abducted and ultimately murdered in our community," says Arizona’s Amber Crotty.
"I believe that if the law enforcement would have searched for my sister when she first went missing, if they would have taken her seriously, we would have my sister," says Montana’s Kimberly Loring-HeavyRunner. "We wouldn’t have to search for 18 months through the wind and three feet of snow, being chased by grizzly bears, wondering, 'Is my sister in the mountains?'"
Alaska’s Patricia Alexander says, “The future of Indian Country depends on whether all of us work together to ensure that Native women live in environments that are free of such rampant, unaccountable violence.”
Their testimony was central to a gut-wrenching hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to examine what authorities call a "silent crisis" — the deaths and disappearance of hundreds of Native American women.
"Where’s the problem? Is it with the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs]? Is it with the FBI? Is it with tribal law enforcement?," Montana's senior senator, Democrat Jon Tester asked during the hearing.
“Because if this was going on anywhere else in the country, dare say there would be incredible hearings in this body. So where’s the problem so we know where to focus our efforts?”
There were no hard and fast answers on hand Wednesday.
Some partly blame the crisis on the deepening scourge of meth and opioid addiction in Indian Country. Others point to lackluster coordination among multiple law enforcement agencies; an accusation Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services Charles Addington doesn’t dispute.
“Going forward, better interagency coordination and cooperation is needed to improve the integrity of data collection,” Addington says.
Wyoming Republican Senator John Barasso condemned the lack of meaningful government data documenting rates of missing and murdered indigenous people.
“The losses are horrific," Barasso said. "That they’re not represented in the data is also also horrific.”
The BIA’s Charles Addington outlined a series of programs his agency is implementing. Among them, additional human trafficking courses for local law enforcement and pilot training programs on advanced cold case investigations.
That didn’t impress Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines. Daines reminded Addington that it took BIA and Blackfeet police two months to open their investigation into 20-year-old Ashley Loring-HeavyRunner’s disappearance from Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation in June of 2017.
“If you have evidence that occurred during the summer months – where the Blackfeet tribe is in that part of our state, we get a lot of snow, very harsh winter and a lot of wind. Is two months a reasonable time? Is that the protocol you follow,” Daines asked.
“No," Addington replied. "And I think there’s got to be a lot better coordination at the beginning."
Ashley Loring-HeavyRunner’s sister, Kimberly, begged the Senate Indian Affairs Oversight Committee to continue its investigation and pressure law enforcement to treat indigenous people with the dignity and respect their cases deserve.
“There’s something seriously wrong here," HeavyRunner said. "Our girls, our people, our men are important. We shouldn’t have to be here and plead to make us important. Because we are important. We are people. We are important.”
This story has been updated to add more detail.