Aiming to end a crisis
Rep. Tom Cole
By U.S. Rep. Tom Cole
For far too long, dangerous predators have disproportionately targeted indigenous women and girls, and violence against Native Americans and Alaska Natives far exceeds national averages. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native women and girls experience a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average. The impact of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls has on tribal communities is certainly vast, as many have sadly lost mothers, daughters, nieces, aunts, siblings and friends. Throughout May during Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Awareness Month, we are somberly reminded of the urgent need to end this terrible crisis.
According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Systems (NamUs), Oklahoma is listed as the second state of most missing Native Americans at 86. This database also reports that 53 percent of all missing women and girls are from tribal land, and the average age of the case for those missing is 19. In addition, according to a recent report from the National Institute of Justice, 40 percent of victims of sex trafficking are identified as indigenous women and more than four out of five indigenous women have experienced violence in their lifetime. While these statistics are alarming, data collection is unfortunately still lacking, and it will require sufficient awareness and resources to solve this crisis once and for all.
Poor data collection, record-keeping and access to other resources ties the hands of law enforcement when investigating these cases. To strengthen data collection, I am proud to co-lead the Bridging Agency Data Gaps and Ensuring Safety (BADGES) for Native Communities Act. This bill, which was reintroduced by Congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona in March of this year, appoints tribal facilitators at NamUs to coordinate reporting of information, directly work with tribes and conduct a report on their findings on percentage of missing persons cases. This will help in reporting up-to-date data on cases and allow for more interagency cooperation.
I was also an original cosponsor of the Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act, both of which were signed into law in 2020. The Savanna’s Act aims to improve data collection of missing and murdered indigenous peoples, clarify the responsibilities of tribal, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies responding to cases and provide tribal governments with resources and information to assist in their response. The Not Invisible Act created a joint commission composed of tribal leaders, law enforcement, federal partners and survivors, to identify and combat violent crime within tribal lands. Today, this commission is up and running, and even includes a member from the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation and an investigator from the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service.
Finally, to raise awareness for this cause, I have consistently joined resolutions recognizing the crisis of violence against Native women and girls and recognizing May 5 of each year as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. And in 2013, I was proud to work across the aisle to include historic provisions in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization that recognized the inherent authority of participating tribes to exercise “special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction” over certain defendants, regardless of their native or non-native status, who commit acts of domestic violence or dating violence or violate certain protection orders in Indian country.
Ending the violence against indigenous women and girls will take the work and partnership from federal, state and local leaders and law enforcement. As a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, this is an issue that I understand the importance of and am proud to champion. By strengthening resources for law enforcement, victims and survivors, we can aim to end this crisis.
If you are an American Indian or Alaska Native or know of someone in these groups experiencing violence or abuse, you can get help by chatting online or finding resources at the Native Helpline at https://strongheartshelpline.org/get-help or by dialing 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483). Additionally, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233).