Invisible No More

When a child is reported missing in the United States, an Amber Alert is immediately sent out to all cellphones in the surrounding area alerting its citizens. The penetrating alarm delivers a text with the description of the child and the year and make of the abductor’s vehicle (if known).

This however, was not the case for Ashlynne Mike, an 11-year-old Native American girl who was abducted in 2016 along with her 9-year-old brother. It took authorities a whopping 10 hours to issue the alert. The delay was caused by various levels of bureaucracy between tribal police, the FBI, and local authorities. The layers of mismanagement and communication ultimately cost young Ashlynne her life. By the time her younger brother was found by motorists she had been sexually assaulted, beaten with a tire iron, and left for dead in the desert by her captor, Tom Begaye, Jr.

What’s especially devastating about this crime is that it happens to Native women and girls all the time. One estimate states that 5,716 Native women went missing in 2016, and only 116 of these cases were present in the Department of Justice’s database. (This is twice the national average, and ten times the national average for murder rates.) The National Institute for Justice has found that 85% of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime and that one in three is a victim of sexual abuse each year.

This is partially caused by a colossal disconnect between tribal, federal, and local law enforcement. A lack of funding of Native lands has created a crippling of their infrastructure and communication.

Indeed, the circulation of information between these three law enforcement bodies when Ashlynne Mike went missing was tragically uncoordinated. A recalling of that disclosure resembles a children’s game of telephone, only with fatal consequences.

A pair of bills in the House and the Senate aim to correct this issue. Representative Debra Anne Haaland (NM) is one of four Native representatives in Congress and is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe. She represents the legislative district around Albuquerque and introduced the Not Invisible Act last week to the House of Representatives. Just days before, on May 5th (the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls), Haaland penned an op-ed in the Guardian discussing the issues of this epidemic and what her legislation would do to correct it.

The bill aims to establish an advisory committee on violent crimes comprised of law enforcement, tribal leaders, federal partners, service providers, and survivors to make recommendations to the Department of Interior and the Department of Justice. It would create a position at the Bureau of Indian Affairs to oversee the improvement of coordination efforts across federal agencies to prevent violent crimes, and would also seeks to establish the best practices for law enforcement to fight the trafficking and murder of Native Americans and Native Alaskans.

Haaland introduced the bill with three other Native American representatives (the most ever in a Congressional body) including Sharice Davids (WI) of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Tom Cole (OK) of the Chickasaw Nation, and Markwayne Mullin (OK) of the Cherokee Nation.

Representative Tom Cole, Haaland’s co-chair at the Congressional Native American Caucus, said in a statement: “The amount of violence that Native Americans and Alaska Natives face in their communities, especially women, frankly would not be tolerated anywhere else in America. The advisory committee established by the Not Invisible Act of 2019 would give federal officers a better glimpse of the tragic epidemic of violence in Indian Country, and would facilitate the development of strategies that tribal leaders and federal law enforcement can implement to more effectively confront this problem.”

Haaland is also expected to introduce another bill which requires proper documentation of all Native American women’s deaths and disappearances throughout the country. (Similar legislation was passed last year in Washington State and the data is due to be presented next month.)

Additionally, Hanna’s Act, another bill which recently became law in Montana will implement a “missing persons czar” to oversee a database of missing people and help improve communication between tribal law enforcement and other agencies working on such cases.

These steps by legislators are essential moves aimed at decreasing the staggering numbers of missing and murdered Native women. While many question why it has taken so long, the answer lies in our representational democracy. When our legislative representatives accurately reflect the population, crucial issues of minority groups are no longer ignored. We currently have the most diverse legislative bodies in the history of our nation, and with it we are inching towards a more authentic version of democracy.

While there is still work to be done, bills like the Not Invisible Act offer significant steps in the right direction. It may not bring Ashlynne back, but it very well could prevent the further disappearances of our women and girls.

Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.  

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