CROW AGENCY — Hanna Harris was 21 years old when she was murdered and left in a ditch, her body remaining there for days in the July sun before searchers found her.
A member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Lame Deer, Montana, Hanna had a 10-month-old son when she went missing in 2013. By the time they found her body, the decomposition prevented investigators from specifying a cause of death. In 2015, two people went to prison for her murder.
In media interviews following her death, her family said they attempted to get law enforcement involved early on when they suspected the worst, but said they were stonewalled from the start. They raised money to have a reward for more information on her death, and hosted rallies calling for “Justice for Hanna” to call for better responses and resolution not only in Hanna’s case, but thousands of other Indigenous women across the United States and Canada who have disappeared.
Now, five years after her death, Hanna’s name could be part of a proposed solution to improve law enforcement’s response when it comes to investigating such cases.
With increased national attention on sexual assault in the #MeToo era, a contingent of Montana lawmakers hope to take advantage of the country’s energy and shine more light on missing and murdered Indigenous women, which has its own hashtag: #MMIW.
State Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, and Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, are shepherding five bills to the 2019 Montana Legislature to deal with missing persons. One is called “Hanna’s Act” at Peppers’ request.
Hanna’s Act would give the Department of Justice authorization to assist with all missing persons cases. It’s one step that Peppers hopes will be the start of many to make life less violent for Indigenous women.
“It’s not safe to be a Native woman,” Peppers, a four-term legislator and member of the Crow tribe, said. “And it’s not taken seriously. This is an epidemic.”
On some reservations, Indigenous women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average. Eighty-four percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetimes, according to a study from the National Institute of Justice. The comparative average rate for white women is 71 percent.
In Montana, Native American women make up 3.3 percent of the state’s population. But as of Oct. 25, 12 of the 119 people in the Montana Missing Persons Clearinghouse were Native American women, accounting for 10 percent of the people reported missing in the state, according to the state Department of Justice.
The NIJ study reported that more than half of all Indigenous women have experienced sexual violence, physical violence by an intimate partner, and stalking. “Unintentional injury” ranks third in the leading causes of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women.
Yet despite the frequency with which Native American women go missing, there is not a singular database tracking their number, so no one knows exactly how many cold cases are still waiting for answers.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has jurisdiction on tribal lands for certain major crimes, such as homicide. The FBI reported 5,711 Indigenous women missing nationwide in 2016, based on the entries in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). In 2017, they counted 5,646 missing Indigenous women, and 2,758 missing as of June 30, 2018.
“The NCIC does not maintain statistics on individuals reported as ‘murdered.’ As a reminder, the entry of records into the NCIC is voluntary, with the exception of federal warrants and missing juveniles,” the FBI said in a statement.
“There is a distinct difference between the number of missing person record entries into the NCIC versus the number of active missing person records,” the FBI statement continued. “Collectively, including previous years/entries up to June 30, 2018, there were 669 active Native American female missing person records.”
Some missing persons cases are never reported. And a jurisdictional maze awaits anyone reporting a suspected crime in Indian Country. Tribal law enforcement, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney can have jurisdiction depending on the location, the crime, and whether the people involved are Native American.
For example, non-tribal members who assault Indigenous women within a reservations boundaries cannot be arrested or prosecuted by tribal authorities, under a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization of 2013 slightly modified this decision.
While the jurisdictional quagmire needs attention, Stewart-Peregoy said a more-pressing problem right now is the response from law enforcement when Indigenous people are reported missing.
It’s typically a slow process if it starts at all, she said, one rooted in a general lack of policing on tribal reservations and in the stereotypes that Indigenous people face when seeking help. Stewart-Peregoy, who has served in the Legislature since 2009 and is a member of the Crow Nation, said the stereotypes have likely influenced responses from law enforcement.
“The stereotypes that Indian women are loose, Indian women drink, there’s all of these negatives put on Indian women,” Stewart-Peregoy said. “The response is not there. By the time they do respond, sometimes it’s too late.”
“The families have told us about the lack of follow through,” Peppers said. “You can almost guarantee that most of these families (in the Crow Nation) have been through this.”
Response times were also the subject of many tribes’ comments during the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women’s Tribal Consultation in 2017. Tribal representatives were asked how to better serve their communities when it comes to missing and murdered women, and many said law enforcement responses are inadequate.
“Tribal leaders have often raised the inadequate law enforcement response to reports of missing Native women. Too often, cases are ruled as suicide when the family knows the cause of death was homicide,” Michael Williams of the Akiak Tribal Council in Alaska said.
One unidentified tribal citizen from Galena, Alaska, said declaring a state of emergency about this issue might be a warranted response.
“Every woman you’ve met today has been raped,” she told the OVW.
According to the FBI, there are more than 140 full-time FBI Special Agents and more than 40 victim specialists working on Indian Country investigations. The FBI also operates 17 Safe Trails Task Forces across the country, joining federal, state, local, and tribal partners together, including over 150 full and part time task force officers.
The bureau also reported that a full 33 percent of the FBI’s victim specialists and 50 percent of the FBIs child and adolescent forensic interviewers are assigned to work with victims and families in Indian Country. This includes both services for victims and families, as well as training for law enforcement.
Recently, the Department of the Interior, which oversees the BIA, and the federal DOJ announced a “major” expansion of the Justice Department’s Tribal Access Program (TAP) for the NCIC, which provides tribes with access to national crime databases. The Interior Department will fund the installation of three new TAP Kiosks where BIA-Office of Indian Services deliver direct social services. They should be installed by the end of 2019.
The Interior Department also intends to expand TAP access at all 28 BIA-Office of Justice Services-operated law enforcement agencies and detention centers. The expansion should provide access to at least 50 tribal communities that didn’t have it before, and the DOJ will fund access for 25 tribes.
“For far too long, a lack of access to federal criminal databases has hurt tribal law enforcement—preventing them from doing their jobs and keeping their communities safe,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement. “With the Tribal Access Program, participating tribes will be able to protect victims of domestic violence, register sex offenders, keep guns out of dangerous hands, and help locate missing people. This milestone demonstrates our deep commitment to strengthening public safety in Indian country.”
Annita Lucchesi, a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge and Southern Cheyenne descendant, wanted to know how many Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in the last century. Given the lack of reliable information, she decided to build a database tracking these cases across North America from 1900 to present.
In the three years since she started the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Database, she’s collected 3,120 cases, with more than 140 reported in Montana. Lucchesi estimated that from 1900 to today, with an average of 200-300 cases a year, that 25,000 to 30,000 Indigenous women have disappeared.
In a new angle to her project, Lucchesi is conducting Freedom of Information Act requests to police departments across the country to collect data and show how differently each jurisdiction handles these cases.
“That’s part of the problem, there’s no centralized protocol,” Lucchesi said.
And Lucchesi said there’s power in gathering and keeping your own data.
“For so long, we’ve had every agency but ourselves collect data on us. Part of the reason this project is as successful as it is, is because it’s not affiliated with (other agencies),” she said. “We have complete control over the data. Being able to have that sovereignty in terms of how the data is cared for (and used) means a lot to people.”
Lucchesi works with many organizations in North America on MMIW issues, and said Montana’s lawmakers on both a state and federal level are responding.
“Montana is definitely taking leadership on this issue in a way that I’m really grateful for. I really respect women like Rae Peppers. Her expertise on the proceedings on policy … were really important,” she said. “There are other states that are starting to address this, and largely it’s due to Native women policy makers like Rae Peppers. Even when government is stepping up to address the issue, it’s because we’ve worked hard to make sure we’re represented.”
Lucy Simpson, executive director of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center with headquarters in Lame Deer, agreed that Native American state lawmakers are a big reason these issues have been pushed to the forefront.
“We also have federal bipartisan representatives who have been involved in this issue,” Simpson said.
“These are issues that have been going on for a long time; locally people have been complaining about the lack of appropriate response, but I think the awareness activity that has been happening nationally has people’s attention,” she added.
The Northern Cheyenne community is building a community task force to focus on grassroots activism. The task force is already considering a resolution for the tribal council to declare a state of emergency locally on MMIW issues, Simpson said.
“It’s mothers, it’s fathers, it’s children who have been impacted and don’t want to stop going to meetings or stop pushing,” Simpson said.
To get the results they want, Simpson said more people need to demand answers and change, including non-tribal members.
“To really create real, social change at the local level and the national level, we need to find allies and build a movement beyond ourselves,” she said. “A foundational piece of the work is education on what sovereignty means and how to collaborate with tribal communities in a real, useful way and not just come in from the top down and tell the communities what to do.”
Peppers and Stewart-Peregoy are members of the Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee, which over the interim between sessions focused on missing persons, human trafficking, and violence against women, as the three topics often intermingle.
The committee’s work, including a 2017 hearing in Lame Deer, resulted in a report called “Addressing an Epidemic: Missing and Murdered Indian Women,” along with the proposed bills for the session. Other states, such as Minnesota, North Dakota, and Washington, are working on legislation to facilitate searches and authorize information sharing among law enforcement agencies.
Lawmakers worked with the Department of Justice on the proposals. One would require all law enforcement authorities to accept a missing persons report without delay. Another requires a missing child report to be filed in cases of custodial interference when the child’s whereabouts are unknown. One bill allows the state Office of Public Instruction to create a digital collection for school photos of children to be given to law enforcement if the child goes missing (parents can opt out of the program). One of the bills would allow the state to study options about breaking the cycle of runaway youth during the legislative interim.
Hanna’s Act would allow DOJ involvement in all missing persons cases, and create a specialist at the DOJ whose job is working with law enforcement and families, oversee entries into the NCIC, manage the state database and website, and educate the public. The specialist would be required to complete cultural competency training.
Stewart-Peregoy and Peppers said they expect an uphill battle on their proposals at the Legislature, especially the ones that require funding. However, the bills adjust the laws to help all sides involved in missing persons cases, both women said.
“We’re going to need a lot of help to get these bills passed,” Peppers said. “We are asking that every woman step forward. At the end of the day, all of the tweaks will help everyone. These are holes in the system that we’re trying to fill.”
Other solutions include more funding and training for tribal law enforcement and courts, Stewart-Peregoy said. For example, the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation covers 444,000 acres and had three police officers a few weeks ago, but one recently quit, Peppers said. Now just two officers patrol the whole reservation.
Domestic violence is also a problem that needs attention, the women said, through education and resources for Native American women and men. They would also like to overturn federal laws that restrict tribal courts from prosecuting non-tribal members for crimes committed on the reservation.
Curbing violence against women is a many-pronged process, the lawmakers said, and they want to do what they can to benefit every woman, Indigenous or not.
“We’re not politicians, we’re statesmen,” Stewart-Peregoy said. “We represent the people within our districts. This is for our constituents and all of Montana.”
Editor’s Note: This story part of a series called “Disappeared,” a special project from the Flathead Beacon, done in collaboration with the Solutions Journalism Network, to highlight the issues around missing and murdered Indigenous women. Go to www.MontanaMMIW.com to read the entire series.