States weigh bills addressing Native deaths, disappearances

Minnesota state Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, D-New Brighton
Minnesota state Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, D-New Brighton, speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol in St. Paul on Jan. 29, 2019.
Steve Karnowski | AP Photo

Lawmakers in at least seven states have introduced legislation to address the unsolved deaths and disappearances of numerous Native American women and girls.

The legislation calls for state-funded task forces and other actions amid deepening concerns that law enforcement agencies lack the data and resources to understand the scope of the crisis.

On some reservations, federal studies have shown Native American women are killed at more than 10 times the national average.

"This is not about a trend that is popular this year," said state Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat who is co-sponsoring a measure in New Mexico. "It's really to bring to light the number of indigenous people who are going missing."

An Associated Press review of the bills found that mostly Native American lawmakers in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Washington, New Mexico and Arizona have sponsored measures on the issue.

In AP interviews last year, families described feeling dismissed after initially reporting cases of missing female relatives to police. An examination of records found there was no single government database tracking all known cases of missing Native American women.

In Montana, a bill named for Hanna Harris -- a 21-year-old found slain on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in July 2013 -- proposes that state authorities hire a specialist responsible for entering cases into databases.

Under Hanna's Act, the state Department of Justice employee would also serve as a liaison for tribal, federal and state authorities and families after a Native American is reported missing.

"To us we've seen study bill after study bill," said Rep. Rae Peppers, a Democrat. "Why waste money on a study bill when the issue was right in front of us?"

Peppers, whose district spans the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations, lives in Lame Deer, a small community where Harris' body was found days after she was first reported missing.

Peppers said she and other lawmakers decided to name the measure for Harris in part because her mother had led an early push for more awareness of the cases.

Other cases in Peppers' rural district include the death of 14-year-old Henny Scott. Her body was found by a search party two weeks after she went missing in December.

Harris and Scott's families complained authorities were slow to search for the victims after they were reported missing.

"It's always been this way. We've always had missing women and children," Peppers said. "The voices are just louder now."

In New Mexico, Lente said his measure would call for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department to lead a task force joined by authorities across jurisdictions.

The legislation was welcomed by Meskee Yatsayte, an advocate in New Mexico for families with missing loved ones on the Navajo Nation. She said she hoped lawmakers and officials would include victims' families and advocates in their discussions.

"It's a good step forward," Yatsayte said. "But it can't be something where they meet and then nothing is done about it."

Bills in South Dakota and North Dakota include mandates for law enforcement training programs on conducting investigations.

Rep. Tamara St. John, a South Dakota Republican and member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, said she's co-sponsoring the measure to put a spotlight on the cases.

Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, a Washington state Republican, introduced a bill signed into law last year that requires the Washington State Patrol to provide an estimate by June of how many Native women are missing in the state. That measure paved the way for similar legislation in other states.

This year she proposed another measure that would require the state patrol to have two liaisons on staff to serve tribes seeking information about cases.

"I truly believe this is an intense emergency and we have to put this on the front burner," Mosbrucker said in a committee hearing late Tuesday. "What we learned is we didn't want to wait."