faith in action

The epidemic of missing and murdered Native American women

Angela Lovegood and Kimberly Lorring-Heavy Runner attended the Senate Oversight Committee hearing addressing the problem of missing and murdered Native American women and girls.

I accompanied Kimberly Lorring-Heavy Runner, her cousin and their friend to a Senate Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday, Dec. 12. The hearing focused on the surprising number of Native American women and girls who have gone missing or have been murdered.

The hearing, titled “Missing and Murdered: Confronting the Silent Crisis in Indian Country,” opened with introductory speeches from several of the senators.

Each of them introduced disturbing facts and figures, like the statistic that the murder rate for Native American women is ten times that of the national average. They shared stories including that of Mackenzie Howard, a 13-year-old girl who was found murdered in the doorway of a church in Kake, Alaska. Volunteers guarded her body for 11 hours until state troopers could get to the town.

The first panel that spoke to the Senate committee after several speeches consisted of:

  • Charles Addington, deputy associate director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
  • Robert Johnson, assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division.
  • Gerald LaPorte, director of the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences.

Despite the representation from several different areas of law enforcement, all of whom agreed that there is an epidemic, no one could definitively answer the question: “Why are we not finding these people?”

Sen. Jon Tester pointed out that the conversations were getting nowhere and that, ultimately, something is not happening in regard to indigenous women.

After a brief break, during which Johnson and LaPorte left, the hearing reconvened for the personal testimonies of three different Native American women:

  • The Hon. Amber Crotty from the Navajo Nation Council in Window Rock, Arizona.
  • Patricia Alexander from the Violence Against Women Taskforce and representative of the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
  • Kimberly Loring-Heavy Runner, whose sister, Ashley Loring-Heavy Runner has been missing since June 12, 2017.

Each of the three women gave accounts of loss and unanswered questions from within their communities. This hearing suggested that law enforcement is not taking these cases seriously.

Kimberly Loring-Heavy Runner tearfully explained that although she is now her missing sister’s voice, she shouldn’t have to be, and the issue shouldn’t even exist, except that people are not doing their jobs.

During the hearing, Kimberly Loring-Heavy Runner explained that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribal police searched for only three days and then stopped with no explanation. She recounted that evidence had been lost and that case information had been given to the main suspect.

She concluded, “If they had taken Ashley serious, as a person, because we are important, I believe that my sister would have been here, or that we would have closure.”

In the case of the Kake murder, the state police could travel at night, and still, the townspeople had to guard the body overnight for 11 hours. The disappearance Ashley Loring-Heavy Runner shows negligence and apathy on the part of the local law enforcement. And each fact and account showed that people do not seem to care. And why should they considering that, as Sen. Lisa Murkowski pointed out, there are worse punishments for poaching a moose than there are for violating a woman?

The Bible is clear when it says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” and, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Despite this, it seemed that everyone in the room at the Senate Oversight hearing agreed that there is an epidemic at hand, one that it is hard to believe anyone truly cares about.

In fact, Kimberly Loring-Heavy Runner almost did not make it to the Senate hearing.

Despite receiving an invitation to tell her sister’s story, she and her cousin only had a week to make arrangements with absolutely no help from the government. The women of Blackfeet United Methodist Church, who have been following Ashely Loring-Heavy Runner’s case and are helping spread information, were able to help raise $600, and the Mountain Sky Annual Conference was able to provide plane tickets and accommodation in Washington, D.C. These contributions allowed Kimberly Loring-Heavy Runner to share her sister’s story. She would much rather have her sister back.

At the very least, she would like answers and closure.

Statistically, this is unlikely, but that does not mean that Kimberly Loring-Heavy Runner won’t stop searching for her sister — or recruiting help — until she is found.