News & Features

Senators Grill FBI, BIA About Missing Indigenous Women

Hearing in Senate Indian Affairs Committee asks law enforcement why they find so few of the missing and murdered women

Kimberly Heavy Runner Loring has told the story of searching for her still-missing sister, Ashley Heavy Runner Loring, many times since Ashley’s disappearance from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in 2016.

On Wednesday, Loring told the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs just how little law enforcement seemed to care about her sister’s disappearance, and how if they’d been more involved from the start, her family might have Ashley, if not a resolution.

Loring’s testimony was part of a Dec. 12 hearing in the Senate committee on the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women throughout the country. The lawmakers wanted to hear about how big the problem is and what solutions could be offered to combat it.

Indigenous women go missing and are murdered at an alarmingly high rate, with more than 80 percent of Native women experiencing violence. On some reservations, Indigenous women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average.

There is no singular database tracking these cases so there’s not a set number of how many women are actually missing, and the current legal framework surrounding these cases is a quagmire of jurisdictional issues among tribal police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and state police.

Representatives from the FBI and BIA were grilled during the hearing about protocols and why, if these jurisdictional issues are all mapped out, is there such a gridlock when it comes to cases in Indian Country.

“I am asking you to recognize that Indigenous women matter, and the way our missing and murdered women cases are handled needs to be corrected,” Loring said. “We are going missing, we are being murdered. We are not being taken seriously.”

In the case of Heavy Runner Loring, her sister said law enforcement didn’t get involved with the case until Ashley had been missing for two months.

Montana’s Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, asked BIA and FBI officials specifically about the failure of the Heavy Runner Loring case, and why they have such low rates of finding missing Indigenous people.

“When it comes to doing an investigation and doing it in a timely manner and getting the information, where is the problem?” Tester asked. “If this was going on any other place in the country, I dare say there would be incredible hearings in [Congress].”

“[Loring] was missing for two months before the Blackfeet police and the BIA started investigating the case as a missing person,” Daines said. “I can tell you in my hometown if that was going on in our neighborhood, there would not be a two-month lag to begin an investigation.”

FBI and BIA representatives said their agents are overworked and spread thin, and that there needs to be better coordination on the front end of an investigation. But the officials also said they can only investigate on the evidence they find, of which there might not be much.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, who was recently ousted in the midterms and is credited with getting Congress to look at the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, lit into the FBI for its lack of response to major crimes in Indian Country.

“It’s a major failure of the FBI that there’s no cop on the beat and you guys aren’t there,” Heitkamp said. “I’m suggesting that because you’re not there and there isn’t a response immediately, the evidence isn’t available and that there’s a better way to do this. This is your problem, and when cases are declined because there’s been missteps on evidence and you’re the primary investigator, this is your problem.”

Earlier this month, the Senate passed Savanna’s Act, which demands better crime data reporting and collection from law enforcement and creating guidelines for responding to such cases. It must pass the House and be signed into law by the president before it is enacted.

The senators in the hearing said it was just the beginning of what needs to happen to address this issue and Heitkamp, in likely her last meeting on the committee, encouraged the senators to continue the momentum.

“Young women and Indian people across the country are watching us. They want to know we are listening,” Heitkamp said. “Just because people have been marginalized historically doesn’t mean we’re going to tolerate this going forward.”

For more information on the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, visit https://MontanaMMIW.com.