AP NEWS

Bill would help track missing Native American women

January 25, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska law enforcement officials need to unite behind an effort to track cases of missing Native American women and children, a problem that has gone virtually unnoticed until recently, a state senator said Thursday.

Sen. Tom Brewer, of Gordon, presented a proposal to a legislative committee that would require better tracking of such cases. The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee heard all-favorable testimony on the bill Thursday from Native American women and other advocates, but took no immediate action.

Brewer, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said law enforcement agencies don’t always communicate well with tribes or the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“This failure to communicate between these agencies has left a no-man’s land where people can fall through the cracks,” Brewer said. “There’s not a way to track the numbers and have the accountability that we need.”

The bill would direct the Nebraska State Patrol to collect data on missing Native American women and organize meetings with law enforcement agencies, tribes and the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. The patrol would report all of its findings to lawmakers by June 1, 2020.

Brewer’s original bill focused solely on women, but he said he hopes to expand it to include children.

More than 80 percent of Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetimes, according to a 2016 report from the National Institute of Justice. More than 56 percent of the women questioned in the nationally representative survey reported that they had experienced sexual violence, and nearly 56 percent reported physical violence by an intimate partner.

“The statistics are staggering about the number of missing Native Americans, and we know that this has to do with human trafficking as well as other issues of domestic violence and assault,” said Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, a co-sponsor of the bill.

The lack of information stems from a combination of factors, said Scott Shafer, an administrative assistant for the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.

Shafer said some missing-persons cases involving Native American women go unreported, and in others, the woman’s race is misclassified. Sometimes, the women who go missing live transient lifestyles and their absences aren’t immediately noticed. Other cases slip through the cracks because of poor record keeping and a lack of communication between agencies, he said.

“It’s hard to fix the problem if you don’t have a true understanding of the full extent of that problem,” he said.

The bill was partly inspired by the unsolved 2016 murder of Sherry Wounded Foot, who was found beaten and unconscious behind an abandoned building in Whiteclay, a tiny Nebraska village that borders South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Wounded Foot died from her injuries 12 days later.

It’s modeled after a new Washington state law that requires the state patrol to figure out a way to identify more cases of missing Native American women. North Dakota lawmakers are considering similar legislation , and may expand it to include data on all missing people in that state.

The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a similar measure in 2017 in response to the death of a Spirit Lake Tribe member in North Dakota, but the bill stalled in the House.

April Marie Satchell, a Native American woman from Lincoln, said the measure highlights a seldom-noticed crisis plaguing many indigenous people. She said she is already working to teach her young granddaughter “the dangers of being Native American and female.”

“Right now, our lives don’t matter,” she said.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte