BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A cascading tower of 75 red dresses suspends from the ceiling of a gallery in the Boise State Student Union Building.
The exhibit, featuring dresses students collected from women at the university and in the community, “aims to bring to social consciousness those women who have been hidden and unseen before.”
Those hidden and unseen women? Missing and murdered indigenous women, or MMIW.
The numbers are staggering, the Idaho Statesman reports: Nationwide, homicide is the third-leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women under the age of 20 and the sixth leading cause of death for those between 20 and 44 years of age, according to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control study.
Eighty-four percent of Native American and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a 2016 Department of Justice study.
Studies have also found that on some reservations, Native American women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average and, in the majority of cases, violence against Native American women is perpetuated by non-Native American men, according to a National Congress of American Indians report.
Indigenous women are not only being attacked on reservations. A 2018 Urban Indian Health Institute study of 71 urban cities across 29 states identified 506 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women, with Seattle, Washington; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Anchorage, Alaska; Tucson, Arizona; and Billings, Montana, reporting the highest numbers of MMIW.
These statistics, though, do not tell the whole picture. They are incomplete due to lack of reporting at the federal, state and tribal levels. More than likely, the number of missing and murdered indigenous women in this country is much higher than these studies show.
But these scant and incomplete statistics have caught the attention of lawmakers, governors and tribal leaders across the country.
In 2019, Congress and at least eight Western states enacted legislation or executive orders pertaining to the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis, which is being called an epidemic.
Idaho is not yet among those states.
Are there any missing or murdered indigenous women in Idaho? If so, how many? The answer is sobering: No one knows. But, this fall, some initial steps were taken to find out.
RED DRESS FOR ASHLYNNE, OTHERS
The 2016 kidnapping and murder of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico served as a catalyst for Navajo sisters Tanyka Begaye and Chenoa Hayes-Begaye.
The sisters, who are from Arizona, attend Boise State University, where they serve as president and vice president of the student Intertribal Native Council.
“For us, it was really sparked with Ashlynne Mike because she was from our own community,” Begaye said. “We always think about her story when we go back to the reservation.”
“After Ashlynne Mike’s murder a lot of people started coming forward with all their stories of what happened in their own families,” Begaye said. “From there, people started realizing how often it happens.”
“That is why we started the red dress project,” she said.
Hayes-Begaye explained their project is inspired by Canadian artist Jaime Black’s REDress Project, which focuses on the issue or missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada.
The empty dresses honor the missing and slain women.
“We do not want them to be forgotten. We want their stories to be continued to be heard,” she said.
IDAHO TAKES NOTICE
Idaho is home to five tribes: Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai, Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone-Paiute.
The Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai and Nez Perce reservations are located in north Idaho, the Shoshone-Bannock in east Idaho and the Shoshone-Paiute on Duck Valley on the southwest Idaho/Nevada border.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 2% of Idaho’s population is Native American, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian.
“I am fearful for the youth on our reservation,” Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Chairman Ladd Edmo said during an Oct. 3 Idaho Legislature Council of Indian Affairs Committee meeting. “I have a 17-year-old daughter. I am strongly afraid that she could be a victim just because she is out in life enjoying her time.”
The interim legislative committee comprises representatives from each of Idaho’s five tribes along with Sens. Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom, and Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise; Reps. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, and Chris Abernathy, D-Pocatello; and Bobbi-Jo Meuleman, Gov. Brad Little’s director of intergovernmental affairs.
During the meeting, the committee heard a presentation on MMIW from Martha Saenz of the National Council of State Legislatures.
“What we know about missing and murdered indigenous women is that we don’t know enough. But the information we do have is quite startling, ” Saenz told the committee.
Following the presentation, committee members discussed whether Idaho needs to look into the issue to determine if this is occurring in Idaho and if so, the next steps.
“We lack the data across the state and in our tribal system to track these kinds in incidents,” Shoshone-Bannock Chairman Edmo told the committee.
Nez Perce Chairman Shannon Wheeler said his tribe has been collecting some data. “We could provide it to start the ball rolling.”
The committee members unanimously agreed to recommend to Gov. Little to conduct a study or convene a task force to determine how many, if any, missing or murdered indigenous women Idaho has.
“Ensuring the safety and security of all Idahoans, including tribal members, from violence is a primary function of state government,” Little’s press secretary Marissa Morrison Hyer told the Statesman.
“In response to the Council on Indian Affairs’ request, the Governor’s Office directed the Idaho Council on Domestic Violence and Victims Assistance to work with Idaho tribes and gather data,” she said. “After the council reports back on what it finds, we can build the appropriate response to the public safety issues affecting Native American women nationwide.”
The Idaho Council on Domestic Violence and Victims Assistance is already getting to work on the project. Director Nicole Fitzgerald was en route to Coeur d’Alene to meet with tribal members when the Statesman contacted her.
“You are correct that there is not official data tracking by state, tribal or local law enforcement agencies regarding MMIW,” Ferguson said. “The Council on Domestic Violence and Victim Assistance is reaching out individually to the tribes to begin discussions on what is needed in Idaho to address this crucial topic.”
Fitzgerald said the Council of Domestic Violence, which receives federal grant money to address domestic violence, has contracted with the Boise State University Criminal Justice Department to gather data on victim services and victimization in Idaho to better prioritize and direct funding. The report will be available in December 2020.
Idaho State Police is also reaching out.
ISP Director Col. Ked Wills invited all of the tribes’ leaders to ISP in October to discuss how the state’s law enforcement agency can help with safety issues specific to their communities.
“We understand there are families whose loved ones are missing and that they need whatever help we can provide,” ISP spokeswoman Tecia Ferguson told the Statesman.
The Statesman asked all five tribes if they collect MMIW data, and, if so, what have they learned.
Only one tribe responded.
“It appears we do not have the data to provide you with the information you are seeking, which is telling and shows how much attention this subject needs so that we can close those gaps and work towards the resolution of these issues,” said Bernie LaSarte with Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s STOP violence program.
“That is the exact reason, no one knows an accurate number because no one is collecting the data, until now,” she said.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe on Oct. 17 hosted an all-day seminar on MMIW featuring guest speakers from the FBI, the Idaho Coalition to Stop Domestic Violence, and regional and national human trafficking and MMIW groups.
OTHER OBSTACLES OUTSIDE OF DATA
Lack of data is not the only obstacle to addressing MMIW.
Saenz told the Indian Affairs Council about some of the other challenges: “Investigation of cases of MMIW is difficult for tribal law enforcement agencies due to a variety of reasons including the lack of necessary training equipment or funding, lack of inter-agency cooperation, lack of appropriate laws in place.”
Saenz said there is a “complicated jurisdictional scheme that exists in Indian countries.”
Reports have shown U.S. Attorneys have declined to prosecute a majority of violent crimes in Indian country, and tribes do not have the authority to prosecute non-Natives who commit violent crimes on tribal lands.
The House Natural Resources Committee on Dec. 5 cleared a bill by U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, to help with that. The bipartisan bill, the Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act, would allow tribal courts to prosecute sexual violence crimes committed against tribal members on tribal land by non-tribal members.
Adding to this issue is tribes’ deeply ingrained distrust of non-tribal law enforcement.
“It goes back to the history,” Begaye said. “It took us so long to become a sovereign nation, which is like a nation within a nation, it was so hard to get to that point because of the history with the United States.”
“The historical trauma that comes with it, the trust issues and betrayal,” Hayes-Begaye added.
“All those things tie into the distrust part,” Begaye continued. “Our law enforcement agencies do not want to leave it to someone else. ... I think it is hard to relinquish control because we do not want people from outside our nation to overstep.”
But as more and more disappearances and murders come to light, it is becoming apparent this is not solely an on-the-reservation issue. The deaths and disappearances transcend tribal, state and international borders, Begaye said, referring to Canada, which is also dealing with an escalating number of missing and murdered indigenous women.
Indigenous women make up 4% of Canada’s female population, yet 16% of all women murdered in Canada between 1980 and 2012 were indigenous, according to a 2014 Royal Canadian Mounted Police report, Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: An Operational Overview, which identified a total of 1,181 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
The U.S does not have such a comparable or comprehensive study.
“It is tough to say, but at some point there needs to be some communication and working together,” Begaye said. “There needs to be some kind of relationship that needs to be built.”
Both sisters agree a uniform reporting database, including Canada and Alaska, is the best first step.
“They get reported but where does it go after that?” Hayes-Begaye asked. “In a perfect world, it would be in one database where you can find all these stories that would honestly back up the statistics. People would really see that this really truly is an epidemic, and it is not just being made up.”
That is why they started the red dress project, Begaye added.
“We forget about these people,” she said. “We do not want them to be forgotten. We want to honor and remember those people. We want their stories to be continued to be heard.”
STATES, FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TAKE ACTION
Just this year alone, Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming took the first steps to address the issue by enacting legislation or executive orders to conduct studies, create task forces or implement reporting/tracking protocols. Alaska, California, Colorado and Washington have already taken such action, according to the National Council of State Legislatures
The U.S Department of Justice and FBI on Nov. 22 announced its new plan to address missing and murdered indigenous persons.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Initiative has three parts.
First, it places coordinators in U.S. Attorney’s offices in 11 states, who will work with federal, tribal, state and local agencies to develop common protocols and procedures for responding to reports of missing or murdered indigenous people. The states receiving the coordinators are Alaska, Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and Washington state.
Second, the Department of Justice plan calls for the deployment of the FBI’s most advanced response capabilities when needed. The third part of the initiative includes improved data collection and analysis, as well as training to support local response efforts.
“American Indian and Alaska Native people suffer from unacceptable and disproportionately high levels of violence, which can have lasting impacts on families and communities,” U.S. Attorney William Barr said during a press conference at Flathead Reservation in Montana announcing the initiative. “Native American women face particularly high rates of violence, with at least half suffering sexual or intimate-partner violence in their lifetime. Too many of these families have experienced the loss of loved ones who went missing or were murdered.”
Additionally, on Oct. 31, the Senate passed an appropriations package that includes $6.5 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take a comprehensive look at the issue. The money will go toward investigating cold cases, background checks, new equipment and training.
The legislation also calls for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to work with tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement to develop a set of guidelines on how to best collect MMIW statistics.
In Congress, bipartisan and bicameral legislation is pending.
On Nov. 20, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved Savanna’s Act, which will enhance coordination among federal and tribal agencies and standardize how DOJ handles the cases.
Savanna’s Act is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was eight months’ pregnant when she was abducted and killed in 2017 in Fargo, North Dakota.
A companion bill is awaiting action in the House.
All four of Idaho’s congressional members are co-sponsoring Savanna’s Act.
“The lack of data regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is beyond alarming,” Idaho U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo told the Statesman in a statement. “More must be done to deal with domestic violence against Native Americans. I am a co-sponsor of Savanna’s Act, which attempts to combat this MMIW epidemic and directs the Department of Justice to formulate new guidelines for the reporting of violent crimes against indigenous people.”
Crapo said he supports Gov. Little directing his administration to work with Idaho tribes to gather data.
Idaho U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher said his heart goes out to the family of LaFontaine-Greywind and others who have suffered and lost loved ones.
“Our office has been in contact with the Idaho Council on Indian Affairs leadership and we appreciate their proactive engagement in this effort,” he said. “With President Trump’s proclamation recognizing the month of November as National Native American Heritage Month, it is an important reminder to highlight and check on efforts to protect the diverse culture and heritage of Native Americans throughout the United States.”