Indigenous women
The U.S. Senate advanced The Not Invisible Act of 2019 on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The legislation would address missing and murdered cases by increasing interagency communication and law enforcement training. (Brooklyn Wayland / Gaylord News)

WASHINGTON — When Pam Smith found out that her niece had been radio silent for hours, she started to worry. She called family, friends and finally local law enforcement in hopes of hearing good news, or any news at all.

“Before my niece went missing, I knew that the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic was happening. But I had my head in the sand,” said Smith, whose niece, Aubrey Dameron, has been missing from Oklahoma’s Delaware County since March 2019.

Gaylord NewsThis story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.

“When you wake up into this nightmare, you realize how Native Americans are treated differently,” she said.

Smith, her family, Indigenous women advocates and search groups from surrounding areas started conducting searches for Dameron, a transgender woman and member of the Cherokee Nation. Local law enforcement did not participate in initial searches as they felt there was no evidence pointing to Dameron being in those areas. 

“One of the searches was March 23 and the second was March 30, on one of those we asked if the county could come out with a canine, because we found some red flags,” said Smith. “The county said, ‘why we’re not doing the search,’ and that was that.”  

Capt. Gayle Wells of the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office confirmed her account.

“There was absolutely no evidence of Aubrey being in places they searched. They just picked areas to search, which was fine, I understand their concern,” said Wells explaining the decision to not join the search. “The other side of the coin is we have a very small agency here with very limited personnel.”

In early November 2019, the search party for Dameron consisted of volunteers and law enforcement officers, and search dogs got a hit on a plastic tarp. The Sheriff’s office sent the tarp in December to a lab in Cherokee county. 

Neither the family or the sheriff’s office has heard back.  

“You know, it needs to be out there. People need to know that this is really happening. It’s not just something you’re going to see on TV or read a book. It’s what we’re living,” said Smith.

The Not Invisible Act

Indigenous women
Oklahoma has 18 missing or murdered Indigenous women cases, 10th-most in the nation, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute. (Provided)

In 2019, there were 18 missing and murdered Indigenous women cases in Oklahoma City and Tulsa: eight murders, six missing women and four of unknown status, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute. Oklahoma has the 10th-highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the nation. 

The study only reflects cases the Urban Indian Health Institute could find from freedom of information requests, talking to families and the willingness of law enforcement to help. Currently, no database exists to collect, track, record or share information on missing or murdered Indigenous women cases, which span across tribal, state and federal jurisdictions.

More than four out of five Native Americans, or 83 percent, face some type of violence in their lives, according to the National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the Department of Justice. Fifty-six percent of Indigenous women have been sexually assaulted. Of those victims, 97 percent report at least one act of violence committed by a non-Native. 

“This is an issue that has been plaguing Native American women for 500 years. And people need to understand that this is a very deep-seeded issue. It’s not something that just popped up over the last 30 or 40 years or something. It has its tentacles in Native communities and urban areas,” said U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.).

The Not Invisible Act of 2019, which passed the U.S. Senate on March 11 and now heads to the House, introduces measures for interagency communication, prevention efforts, specialized law enforcement training and working with tribes to combat the rising numbers. 

“The act essentially establishes an advisory committee on violent crime. And the advisory committee would be made up of law enforcement, tribal leaders, federal partners, service providers, survivors or their families or victim advocates,” said Haaland, a sponsor of the bill. “They can then make recommendations to the Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice. It also establishes best practices for law enforcement.”

Creating a database for missing and murdered native women is no different than what has been done for other areas.

“I just think we’ve created databases in a lot of other areas, I can’t imagine the challenges here are different, maybe a little unique in some ways, but we just have to provide the same level of services to Indian country that we provide in any other part of the country,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK4).

Cole said there are a lot of different things that need to be done

“Probably the number one thing would be enhancing the authority of tribal law enforcement, and frankly also providing the resources to help increase the professionalism of both those law enforcement units and tribal courts they serve,” said Cole, a co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s going to take a significant investment in the justice part of tribal governance.

Indian Country is very diverse and difficult to legislate for, said Cole.

“If nobody thinks about these kinds of problems systemically and across the breadth of Indian Country, which is very diverse and difficult to legislate for, you’re going to have these gaps and you’re basing legislation on very incomplete information,” said Cole.

The effort on the federal level comes at the same time Oklahoma state legislators are moving to address the missing and murdered issue.

Ida’s Law, named after Cheyenne and Arapaho citizen Ida Beard, who has been missing since 2015, seeks to improve data collection, secure more federal funding to combat crimes against Indigenous women, help families navigate the justice system and create a liaison position for better communication between tribal communities and state and federal agencies. 

“We don’t have a lot of good, accurate data when it comes to this particular crisis chain. And with bipartisan support in the House, we’ve been able to develop legislation to address that,” said State Rep. Daniel Pae (R-Lawton), one of several co-sponsors of HB 3345, which awaits State Senate consideration. (The Oklahoma Legislature has adjourned indefinitely owing to COVID-19 concerns.)

Pae said Ida’s Law would create a liaison position to work with the FBI and federal counterparts when it comes to cases of missing and murdered indigenous people. HB 3345 was filed by Rep. Mickey Dollens (D-OKC), who issued a statement after its advancement from the House.

“Advocates like First Lady of the Cherokee Nation January Hoskin and Cherokee Nation Congressional Delegate Kimberly TeeHee were instrumental in getting the House to act on this bill, which will finally turn the state’s attention to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people,” Dollens said. “I appreciate the opportunity to work with these champions of justice and look forward to continuing to work with them in any way I can.”