Bill Seeks Study on Murdered and Missing Native American Women

Feb. 26, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol Building (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

Studies show Native American women are victims of violence at higher rates than the national average. Native women also are murdered and go missing at higher rates. Part of the problem is law enforcement doesn’t know how widespread the problem may be. There’s an effort in the Nebraska Legislature to change that.

“I am here to introduce LB 154," Sen. Tom Brewer said at a recent hearing of the Judiciary Committee of the Nebraska Legislature. "The bill attempts to answer a very serious question. Why do Native American women turn up missing in numbers far more than the national average for every other demographic?”

LB 154 is one page long. Sen. Brewer introduced it last month. It commissions a study by the Nebraska State Patrol to “determine the scope of the problem, identify barriers, and find ways to create partnerships to increase reporting and investigation of missing Native American women.”

One reason native women go missing at higher rates than the national average could be a lack of coordination between the state patrol and tribal law enforcement. Brewer says his bill would look to change that.

Sen. Tom Brewer (Photo courtesy Nebraska Unicameral)

“It directs the state patrol to coordinate with federal law enforcement agencies, Nebraska’s Indian Commission, the Native American tribes of Nebraska, and various Indian advocacy groups, as well as local law enforcement agencies in an effort to understand the scope of the problem and develop a more effective solution to address it,” Brewer said.

Sometimes cases fall through the cracks because of jurisdiction. If a native woman is murdered on a reservation, and then the suspect leaves the reservation, there can be confusion about whether the case should be handled by tribal law enforcement or the state patrol.

Larry Wright Jr. is the tribal chairman for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. He hopes cooperation between agencies can increase efficiency.

“I think it really comes down to the speed of identifying when these things happen and sharing information, but it's easy to be defensive of your particular jurisdiction. I support all of our officers, but we also understand sometimes the communication may not be the best,” Wright said.

Wright suspects a breakdown in family communication also makes it harder for communities to look out for their own.

“There could be distance and geography due to, you know, that person's family might be still home on the reservation, they may be in an urban area, or vice versa, so they think they're some place and they don't follow up and that leads to that time delay,” Wright said.

Larry Wright Jr. (Photo courtesy Ponca Tribe of Nebraska)

Another possible reason native women go missing is they are abducted by sex traffickers.

“It's become prevalent, you know, across racial divides, but we also know minorities and native women are particularly more vulnerable because of, in some cases, socioeconomic status, sometimes just the conditions, and are in positions that would expose them to that,” Wright said.

Wright connects sex trafficking in Nebraska and neighboring states to what are called man camps, often near pipeline construction.

“The man camps are, that's related to, in many cases, the pipelines and oil fields and where they bring in people from across the country to fill a workforce, and by and large those are mostly made up of men in remote places who, in these cases, make a lot of money, and have no outlets,” Wright said.

Wright says those camps create a vacuum that sex traffickers fill.

At the committee hearing for the bill, there was a significant amount of support from constituents. Many of them were tribal citizens. One testifier was Collette Yello Robe.

“Nebraska is listed within the top ten states in the United States with the highest number of, what we know of, missing and murdered indigenous women. Omaha is also within the top ten cities within the United States. I’ve always loved Nebraska. I grew up a Husker, and I can tell you right now that is not a good reflection of how compassionate our state is,” Yello Robe said.

Those numbers are supported by a report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. Their study looked at data from as far back as 1943. In Nebraska, they found 33 cases of Native American women who were murdered, missing, or marked as “status unknown.” That means Nebraska is seventh nationally. Omaha is ranked third of the cities in this study, but that may be partly due to how Nebraska records missing person’s cases. If the person is found, they are removed from the list without a note as to whether they were found alive or dead.

Some supporters, including Renee SansSouci, spoke about their fears for their own safety or that of their children.

“I am also here testifying as a mother with native daughters and sons. I maintain a hyper-vigilance over my children and teach them how to protect themselves in any setting they encounter. I am certain that I am not the only native mother who does this. It is exhausting,” SansSouci said.

A similar bill passed last year in Washington state. New Mexico and several other states, mostly in the west, are considering bills of their own.

Wright is encouraged by the support the bill got in committee in the Nebraska Legislature.

“When we're talking about our young women and women in general, we want to make sure we do everything that we can to protect them, and we know just on a national average, the significantly higher incidences of native women being abducted and going missing, and the reporting and all of that, to see these first steps by the senators that co-sponsored and introduced this bill, and the fact that it had basically overwhelming support,” Wright said.

LB 154 will likely be voted on by the full Legislature soon.