Murkowski: We Must Have a Sense of Urgency to Keep Native Women and Girls Safe

Nov. 1st, 2019: U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) spoke on the Senate floor to highlight the growing crisis of missing, trafficked, and murdered indigenous women across the nation and the need to both understand the scope of the problem and address coordination between our state, federal, and tribal governments.

Senator Murkowski emphasized how Native women are victims of violence in unprecedented proportions, the lack of updated data, and her legislative efforts to address the epidemic. Murkowski appreciated the attention the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is giving the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and urged her colleagues to move beyond awareness to action.

In her remarks, Senator Murkowski shared stories of missing and murdered Alaska Native women, including 52 year old Veronica Abouchuk who was originally from the village of St. Michael. She had been reported missing in February and was found dead months later.

Last week, family and friends packed an Anchorage courtroom for the arraignment of the man charged with her murder. The same man accused of killing Veronica is also charged in the torture and murder last month of 30 year old Kathleen Jo Henry—originally from the village of Eek.

Unfortunately, disproportionate numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women have never received justice or resolution. The Abouchuk family previously experienced the loss of one of their sisters, Martha Toms, who was killed in 2005 and whose case is still unsolved.

“These are women who we read of what they have experienced, what they have endured, and think about their families that no longer have these women in their life. And you just view them in the abstract as statistics. So what we are doing to respond to them as women, women that are vulnerable and are being preyed upon—what are we doing to act to help? We have a trust responsibility to Native people, but we have a duty of moral trust when we talk about keeping all Americans safe. And we all have to be part of the solution.” Senator Murkowski said. “So I am back here on the Senate floor with the same message that I had a couple of years ago with Senator Heitkamp and that is to urge colleagues to move beyond awareness to action. Let’s take up Savanna’s act. Let’s take up the Not Invisible Act. Let’s act. Let’s provide for the safety that all these women should expect.”

Below are some excerpts from Sen. Murkowski’s speech:

•“So by passing these bills, we’re saying, ‘we are not going to accept what we have dealt with, what we have faced for far too long.’ So I think that we have to have a sense of urgency to keep Native women and girls safe. And it shouldn’t be anything that is partisan. There’s nothing partisan about trying to protect women, nothing partisan about trying to protect Native women. It’s not Republican or Democrat about the reality that we all deserve to have the same level of protection and justice as every other woman in this country.”

•“On October 1, the headlines in Alaska’s largest newspaper stated that the rate of rape in the state of Alaska was up 11 percent between 2017 and 2018, an 11 percent increase in one year. And we’re a state where unfortunately Alaska Native women are two and a half times more likely to be a victim of domestic violence. In tribal villages and Native communities, domestic violence rates are up to ten times higher than the rest of the nation. In 2015, it was estimated that 40 percent of sex trafficking victims were Native Americans. Now, I know 2015 was a few years ago, but 40 percent of the victims who have been sex trafficked were Native Americans. The rate of sex violence victimization among Alaska Native women is at least seven times greater than nonnative females in the state. So think about that. There is an unprecedented level of victimization, of assault, of violence, of murder that is experienced by Alaska Native women. And these are statistics that really should shock the conscience.”

• “When I’m talking with Alaskans about what we’re seeing with missing and murdered indigenous women, the subject of trafficking keeps coming into every conversation. That’s what seemingly is happening to so many who unfortunately go missing. There are far too many stories that we have that they have become trafficked and then ultimately murdered. This nexus here is what is really frightening.”

•The data and understanding what it is that we know and what we don’t know, how big is the problem, what is happening with Native women that they are being victimized to the extent and to the level that we see? So we are beginning to make some progress. We are beginning to gather more data and understanding. There is a lot we know that we have got to learn, but one thing that has become clear is that these crimes are permeating cities across America. They are in the cities, they are also in our small and remote communities. There’s really no geographic boundary we’re talking about here.”

•“What we’ve seen for far too long is that Native families and communities mourn the loss of people, but often the cases remain unsolved. So these bills address the ongoing epidemic of missing and murdered Indians and bring the issue to the attention of the nation.”

•“Savanna’s Act increases coordination among all levels of law enforcement, increases data sharing, and empowers tribal governments with the resources they need in cases involving missing and murdered indigenous women wherever they occur.”

•“Not Invisible Act designates an official to coordinate efforts across agencies and establishes a commission of local tribal and federal stakeholders to make recommendations to the Department of Interior and Department of Justice on how to combat this epidemic of disappearances, homicide, violent crime, and trafficking of Native Americans and Alaska Natives.”

•“These families have faced unspeakable loss. And until recently have felt almost invisible, frustrated, and really just let down by the system, the complex system that was supposed to protect them. But to truly honor the memory of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind and her family’s loss, we have to close the jurisdictional loopholes that criminals exploit. We have to improve the coordination among law enforcement at all levels of government, and we have to provide the necessary resources.”

Background: In April, Senator Murkowski and Senator Cortez Masto (D-NV) introduced the Not Invisible Act, legislation aimed at addressing the crisis of missing, murdered, and trafficked Native people by engaging law enforcement, tribal leaders, federal partners, and service providers and improving coordination across federal agencies. Separately, Senators Murkowski and Cortez Masto reintroduced the Savanna’s Act, a bill to combat the epidemic of murdered and missing Native women and girls by improving the federal government’s response to addressing the crisis. Savanna’s Act was first introduced by former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, with Senator Murkowski as a cosponsor. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a legislative hearing on these bills in June of 2019. Senator Murkowski thanks Senator Hoeven, the Chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, for his work to address the crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans.

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