A missing sweater tells the story of missing Indigenous women

(Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Law enforcement can’t even answer the question, ‘What’s the problem?’ #MMIW

If you want to understand what’s going on with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, think of one sweater.

Kimberly Loring Heavy Runner told a Senate committee Thursday that her sister’s sweater had been mishandled by the Blackfeet Tribal Law Enforcement and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was the same sweater she wore when she went missing. It was stained with “red spots” and holes.

Heavy Runner's testimony Wednesday at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was part of an oversight hearing titled: “Missing and Murdered: Confronting the Silent Crisis in Indian Country.”

Heavy Runner testified that she and her family went back and forth with the tribal police and BIA and had inquired about the whereabouts of the sweater and asked if it was going to be tested.

After eight months Heavy Runner testified that it still had not been tested and the BIA wasn’t giving her answers. “Blackfeet Tribal Law Enforcement, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs have not taken Ashley’s case seriously,” said Heavy Runner, highlighting nothing had been done in those crucial first two months after her sister went missing.

A BIA agent told Heavy Runner that “Ashley is of age and can leave whenever she wants to.”

Ashley Loring Heavy Runner, 22, has been missing from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation since June 12, 2017.

(Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

The Senate Committee heard testimony from three Native women, including Loring Heavy Runner, on Capitol Hill, all who expressed stories with the common theme of gaps in the protocol, poor coordination, frustrations with the process and authorities who were supposed to be helping.

Three agencies, the BIA, Federal Bureau of Investigations and the National Institute of Justice, also presented their side during the three-hour oversight hearing.

Representatives form the agencies included, Director of the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences at the National Institute of Justice, Gerald LaPorte; Assistant Director of the Criminal Investigative Division at the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Robert Johnson; and Deputy Associate Director of the Office of Justice Services at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Charles Addington.

Senators on the Indian Affairs Committee held the witnesses on the panel accountable by asking the same question several times and even rephrased it. “Why are we not finding the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples?” and “What is the problem?”

(Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

But that question wasn’t answered. Or was it vaguely answered?

No Data Collection

Addington said it is the lack of data collection. But Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Crotty shook her head in disagreement while sitting behind Addington.

Sen. Jon Tester interrupted and asked the three agencies again, “What is the problem?”

On November 14th, the Urban Indian Health Institute released a 32-page report that focuses on missing and murdered Native American and Alaskan Native women and girls in 71 urban cities. Many have called the report necessary research that can fill the gaps of the National Crime Information Center and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

According to the Urban Indian Health Institute report: “The National Crime Information Center reports that, in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases.”

The study also found that some police departments do not racially identify victims or had mis-classified them.

The Seattle research was researched and co-authored by two women, Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute and citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and Annita Luccesi, Southern Cheyenne descent. They worked with very little funding over the course of one year.

Resources

During the testimony, one of the senators inquired if more funding would help as it seemed like the lack of resources. “You’re the cop on the beat,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. “You need to tell us if you need more resources.”

(Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

The need for resources, which could provide for additional law enforcement officers, surfaced again when Sen. Lisa Murkowski talked about a case in Alaska.

Murkowski said a young girl was found in the doorway of a church and state troopers were 16 hours away from her rural village. So community members guarded the body and evidence until state troopers arrived.

Discussions at the hearing noted the lack of resources in rural communities indicates the need for a new protocol. A factor that is tightly intertwined with the timeline of reporting a missing person, evidence, and coordination between different agencies.

A New Protocol

Loring Heavy Runner talked about how a community member told her that if her sister’s case was passed from the BIA to the FBI, her sister’s case would go nowhere.

Johnson of the FBI said they pursue cases that have sufficient evidence, but wouldn’t say at what point in time. It could be weeks or months after a person is reported missing.

For Loring Heavy Runner, it took the FBI approximately nine months to get involved and they “basically had to start over” with the investigation.

Addington suggested notifying all parties involved immediately -- the tribal police, FBI and the BIA -- to ensure coverage of the missing and murdered cases.

After three hours, many in the room left with more questions and frustrations rather than answers or relief.

(Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Some may say this oversight hearing was a step in the right direction. Others may say this hearing left Native communities in the dark. A few would say, as Heitkamp put it, “This problem is not new,” and continue to do their grassroots work.

Yesterday’s vague answer gave us an answer -- which was we are still looking for solution or solutions to this “silent crisis.” It may also be that the problem is unknown because it’s more complex than we think.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter:@jourdanbb. Email:jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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