By Melinda Munson

The statistics for brutality against native women are grim. That’s one reason Sen. Lisa Murkowski declared May 5 National Day of Awareness on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in partnership with Sen. Steve Dains, R-Mont.

According to the National Institute of Justice, 84 percent of Native American and Alaskan Native women suffer violence in their lifetime. More than half experience sexual or intimate partner violence. 

Data on missing and murdered indigenous women is harder to reconcile. A 2016 study by the Urban Indian Health Institute reported 5,712 missing Native American women. That same year, the Justice Department recorded only 116 missing Native American women. Alaska currently has the fourth highest rate of missing or murdered indigenous women. According to KTUU-TV, Anchorage has nine missing Native Alaskan women who were not documented in law enforcement records.

“…We recognize the devastation that so many families have seen when it comes to those that they love who have been murdered or gone missing. And unfortunately, for far too long, there has been silence on this issue. There has been a failure to act in face of what we know — and sometimes not knowing what we are dealing with — because we haven’t asked the questions, which is equally problematic,” Murkowski said.  

Sara Kinjo-Hischer, Skagway Traditional Council’s tribal administrator, was pleased by the May 5 declaration.

“I am so glad, even if it is one day, that there is an awareness day. These awareness days help bring light to hard-to-talk-about topics and help educate people on what is really going on,” Kinjo-Hischer said.

What’s really going on is complicated. Jurisdiction issues between tribal and non-tribal law enforcement, institutional racism, lack of funding and remote locations with little to no police presence are just some of the factors that contribute to inaccurate accounting and lack of investigation into murdered and missing native women.

“The numbers are just unbelievable and make you wonder what country you live in,”  Kinjo-Hischer said. She noted that last year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy attempted to cut significant funds from the Village Public Safety Officer Program. Dunleavy justified the cuts because many of the positions remain unfilled as villages struggled to hire officers willing to live in remote areas with little support and low wages.

The National Day of Awareness is a continuation of state, national and tribal efforts to bring attention and action to the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women. Murkowski also led two pieces of legislation, Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act.

Savanna’s Act, named after 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind of the Spirit Lake Nation, who was abducted and killed in North Dakota in 2017 while pregnant, aims to improve data collection, standardize protocol among law enforcement entities and provide more funding to First Nation governments. 

The Not Invisible Act coordinates efforts between victim advocacy groups and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. It addresses the issue of human trafficking and establishes a Joint Advisory Committee to make recommendations towards a reduction in violent crimes.

Both bills passed the U.S. Senate in March and are now before the U.S. House of Representatives.