What is so searing, so emotionally wrought, for the families of murdered or missing Native American women is the not knowing.
Not knowing if the loved one is dead. Not knowing the circumstances of a disappearance. Not knowing if whoever perpetrated the crime is still out there, preying on others.
Don’t call it seeking “closure,” that catch-all buzz word that can connote that grief has an expiration date. The pain experienced by Native American families whose mothers, daughters and female relatives are victims of unprecedented levels of violence will never go away. But solving a missing-person case, or even just recovering a body, would provide succor for their suffering.
Equally important, increased awareness is finally being given to violence against indigenous women, which is 10 times the national average, according to Department of Justice statistics. Even more vital, the federal government announced on Wednesday that it will allocate $113 million in public safety funding, plus an additional $133 million earmarked for crime victims, to 133 tribes and Alaska Native villages to address the problem.
Money and attention need to be translated into swift and sustained action to deal with an epidemic of violence that is a stain on our national character — a stain that also hits close to home.
As reported last Sunday in the Herald-Republic, at least 32 women in the Yakama Nation have been reported murdered or missing, prompting legislation sponsored by Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, that, since its implementation in June, has heightened the coordination in investigations among state, federal and tribal law enforcement agencies.
Washington’s law is being matched on the federal level by a pair of bills introduced by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota — the End Trafficking of Native Americans Act, and Savanna’s Act — both of which aim to improve cooperation between federal agencies and give tribes expanded access to crime databases. It also requires that federal agencies present to Congress information on the numbers of missing and murdered women.
A key piece of legislation would be an expansion of the Violence Against Women Act to amend laws to give tribes authority to prosecute non-tribal members for running human-trafficking rings on reservation land. Under current law, tribes can only try nontribal members in domestic assault cases in which the victim is a woman and knows her assailant. Such jurisdictional constraints limit the number of crimes on reservations that tribal law enforcement can prosecute.
The Department of Justice has yet to weigh in on whether it supports an expansion of tribal jurisdiction, though Jesse Panuccio, the principal deputy associate attorney general, has hinted the DOJ might sign off on providing more special prosecutors to handle tribal cases.
Just how many women, nationwide, are missing? Currently, numbers vary, and experts caution that many crimes either go unreported or slip through the cracks. The FBI’s National Crime Information Center database reports 633 open missing-persons cases for Native American women, well above the average for other ethnic groups. No government database yet exists to track and cross-reference all cases, making inter-agency coordination challenging and exact tracking of the number of cases far from definitive.
Sometimes, focusing too much on the numbers can distract from remembering that each tally has a name and face, a family and a story, behind it. The Herald-Republic last Sunday published a list, lengthy but only partial, of Yakama Nation girls and women murdered and missing in the past few decades.
It is a sad litany of lives interrupted, a modern-day trail of tears.
Whatever happened to Janice Hannigan, just 15, who vanished from Wapato in 1971? She would be 61 today. Or, Isabel Zaragoza, 17, last seen on the streets of Yakima this past March? Or, sadder still, the skeletal remains of a Native women found near Parker Dam in 1988, presumed murdered and still unidentified and unclaimed?
They, and others like them locally and nationally, have not been forgotten. The nonprofit group Yakama Nation Victim Resource Program has encouraged people to wear red T-shirts every Thursday to honor the departed and remind lawmakers and law enforcement to keep working to solve cases.
Money and consciousness, at last, has been raised. Soon, maybe, loved ones of the missing will get some answers, Native Americans will be assured their lives are valued as much as anyone else’s, and the cycle of violence against women on tribal lands one day will be broken.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.