(CNN) — Across the Western US, Native American women are falling victim to violence in alarming numbers, officials say.
In 2018 alone, more than two dozen Native Americans — the majority of them women — went missing in sparsely populated Montana, according to US Senator Jon Tester.
“We’re here today because we have an epidemic on our hands,” Tester said during a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing last month. “Native Americans in Montana and across this country are dealing with violence at a much higher rate than the rest of the population … you cannot set foot in Indian country without hearing a heartbreaking story about this growing problem.
“Twenty-four doesn’t sound like a lot, but in a state of a million people if you (projected) that out through the (overall) population, that would be a ton of folks,” he added. “We gotta find a solution to this.”
Tester and another Senator from Montana, Steve Daines, say they will reintroduce a bill that would require the Department of Justice to overhaul law enforcement protocols and improve data collection regarding slain or missing Native Americans.
For example, the National Crime Information Center cited 5,712 reports of missing Native American women and girls in 2016, according to a recent report by the Urban Indian Health Institute. But only 116 of those cases were logged into a Department of Justice database, the report said.
The bill, known as Savanna’s Act, was first introduced in 2017 by North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp. According to statistics cited by her office, Native American women on some reservations are killed at a rate 10 times the national average.
It’s named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old Native American who was abducted and killed in Fargo, North Dakota, in August 2017 while eight months pregnant, CNN affiliate KXMD reported.
The bill passed the Senate in December but was blocked in the House. Since Heitkamp was defeated in last year’s midterms, Tester and Daines have taken up the cause.
The hearing before the Senate committee last month included testimony from Kimberly Loring-Heavy Runner, whose sister, Ashley, 20, went missing in June 2017. Ashley, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, still has not been found.
“I’m here today to stress to you that I believe law enforcement did not take Ashley’s case seriously, as well as other girls that have gone missing and been murdered in Indian country,” Loring-Heavy Runner said.
“Where’s the problem? Is it with BIA, is it with the FBI, is it with tribal law enforcement?” Tester wondered aloud at the December 12 hearing. “Why are we not finding these people? We would have a different reaction if this was a non-native.”
The Department of Justice has said it’s taken steps to address the problem. Last September it announced more than $113 million in grants to improve public safety, serve victims of crime and combat violence against women in American Indian and Alaska native communities.
“There is an unacceptable level of violent crime and domestic abuse in American Indian and Alaska Native communities,” said Deputy Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio at the time. “We are committed to reducing violent crime and improving public safety.”