“It’s not an Indian Reservation issue. It‘s not a state issue. It’s a human issue.”
Those were the words of fellow Northern Cheyenne and retired Judge John Robinson when speaking of the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis plaguing not only our state but North America. Robinson, I, and another Northern Cheyenne activist, Jade Sooktis, spoke at a panel discussion sponsored by Humanities Montana at the Red Lodge Public Library on March 26. Russell Rowland was the panel moderator.
A day earlier Hanna's Act—a bill dealing with the MMIW crisis that breezed through the House on a unanimous 99-0 vote—was “tabled” in the Senate on a 5-5 vote.
Hanna's Act supporter and Republican Attorney General Tim Fox told NBC Montana, “It's everything from demographics to jurisdictional barriers, to lack of resources for local and tribal law enforcement—the list goes on and on.”
So with such broad bipartisan support, what was the hold-up in the Senate?
According to Republican Sen. Jennifer Fielder another government position and state tax dollars were not needed to help address the longstanding and issue.
She said, “I believe the tribal governments have extensive resources and I'd like to see some participation from those tribal governments in financing a position like this rather than just ask the state to do it. Those governments have quite extensive resources available to them through the federal government."
There are many wrongs with this presumption, one being a similar national bill dealing with the crisis, Savanna’s Act—named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind who was found dead Fargo, N.D., at eight months pregnant wrapped in plastic and duct tape—passed the U.S. Senate on a 100-0 vote before being thwarted by retiring Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia for vague reasons regarding the language. It must be noted Goodlatte was a staunch advocate against state-recognized tribes in his home state receiving federal recognition.
So while federal resources could have come through Savanna’s Act, it’s back to square one for it. As such, the need for Montana to pass Hanna's Act became dire. Our state representatives' time to rise above the pettiness marring national politics via people like Goodlatte’s and set an example of how to get things done became more urgent than ever.
In that regard, five senators failed us.
While Fielder says tribal governments are just “asking the state to do it,” the problem is exactly state related via jurisdictional issues regarding MMIW as Fox pointed out. State law and sponsorship would alleviate costs of coordination and streamline the jurisdictional labyrinth hindering missing Native women investigations.
And like Robinson said, this isn’t a reservation problem. Nationally 72 percent of Native Americans live off of Indian reservations. Hanna Harris, for instance went to junior high school in Hardin before graduating from Billings West High School. Do people not supporting Hanna's Act think just because of where she died, on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation after being brutally raped and beaten to death while trying to fend off her attackers, her life isn’t worth tax dollars?
While I understand some may try to hide reasons for not supporting the bill behind a being fiscally conservative mantra, the point is: If the lives of young women like Hanna Harris are not worth spending Montana taxes on, I don’t know what they think a better use of money would be.
A Cheyenne saying goes, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done—no matter how brave its warriors or how strong its weapons.”
Although her time on Earth has passed, let Harris’s legacy continue to be one of giving a voice to the voiceless, of turning people who were once considered faceless statistics into people who laughed, cried, breathed, loved and were loved. She died a fighting Cheyenne who continues to live with us in spirit while helping to keep the hearts of our people high above the ground.
In that, we Northern Cheyenne, other tribal nations, and people of Montana—that include 99 of our representatives in the House—implore those five senators to reconsider their vote and help Harris’s voice continue to be heard.
Adrian Jawort, Northern Cheyenne, is a Billings-based journalist and writer and co-founder of the Native American Lecture Series.