‘Our bodies are evidence’; Task force proposed for murdered, missing indigenous females, Two-Spirit people

Indigenous women hold signs, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Unsplash, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would create a task force for murdered and missing indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ+ Utahns is moving through Utah 2020 legislative session, uprooting a passionate response of support in something many were calling an epidemic the Feb. 11 public hearing.

Following the adoption during the 2019 Utah Legislature of a resolution that designated May 5 as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and LGBT+ Awareness Day, a plan to put together a task force was set in motion this year by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City.

Romero is chief sponsor of the proposed bill, designated as HB116 in the 2020 Utah Legislature. The bill is being sponsored in Utah Senate by Southern Utah Sen. David Hinkins.

“This has been a journey for us,” Romero said at the Feb. 11 House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee hearing. “We’ve been working on this since we passed the resolution and over the summer, and I’m glad to see all the support we’ve had.”

According to the United States Census, approximately 70,300 Native Americans live in Utah in either one of the eight recognized tribal lands or in urban areas. A 2015 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed homicide ranging between the second and seventh leading cause of death for Native American females ages 1-39, and homicide remains a leading cause of death for Native American females 40-64 years of age.

However, many cases remain unreported. This insufficient collecting and tracking of data has been a primary catalyst for creating a task force.

Hinkins, who also serves as a chairman for the Native American Legislative Liaison Committee and represents some 12,000 Navajos on the Navajo Nation who reside in San Juan County, told St. George News that he thinks a major benefit of this bill will be the collaboration between county sheriffs and the tribal police force in order to help investigative research.

“Our county sheriffs, even though it’s in the county, really have no jurisdiction in the reservation because they have their own police force,” Hinkins said. “When you don’t have any jurisdiction over that area, it’s kind of hard. And we’re hoping (the bill) will really bring the two together – the tribal police and the county sheriffs.”

If enacted, HB116 would create a task force that would work to identify systemic causes of the disproportionate violence experienced by indigenous woman, girls and LGBTQ+ populations through data assessment and analysis of patterns, with consideration to all underlying historical, social, economic, institutional and cultural factors that may contribute to the violence.

Moroni Benally, coordinator for public policy and advocacy for Restoring Ancestral Winds, also spoke at the committee hearing and said that a study issued by the National Institute of Justice showed in some Native communities and urban areas, the homicide rate for Native women is 10 times the national average. 

In this November 2019 file photo, indigenous men and women brave the weather for the first United Indigenous Natives of Southern Utah rally, St. George, Utah, Nov. 28, 2019 | Photo by Ryann Richardson, St. George News

One of the focuses of Restoring Ancestral Winds has been examining violence in Native communities, where insufficient data collection has caused a hindrance to progression in efforts to prevent and eliminate violence in these communities, both on and off reservations.

“We’re impacted by incomplete data,” Benally said. “We’re impacted by institutional practices and protocol. There’s issues with state tribal and federal jurisdictions. There’s issues with access to resources. The consequences of this lead to disproportionate violence and homicide in Native communities.”

A recent report released by the National Criminal Information Center study showed 5,590 reports of missing indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit or LGBTQ+ last year alone, Benally said.

Utah, especially the Salt Lake Valley, is being ranked in the top 10 in the nation for missing and murdered indigenous woman and girls, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.

Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, chair of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, said at the committee hearing that some examples of the errors found in data collection include racial misclassification, no category for race and misclassification of crimes.

“Most of the perpetrators are not Native American when it comes to the violence that is inflicted on the Native American women or Two-Spirit persons,” Borchardt-Slayton said.

The committee ultimately passed the bill, moving it to floor of the House, but before doing so, committee member Rep. Mark Strong, who was alone in voting against the bill and the only person who voiced opposition during the hearing, shared his concern about the bill not being all inclusive in terms of gender.

“It appears to be the whole community,” Strong said. “Do boys struggle? What about men? I can only guess that in many cases men are the aggressors, but you mentioned also that the violence against them was not from indigenous people. So is there some reason we don’t have children included?

Moroni responded by saying there are Native men and boys that are victims, but the rates of violence against indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ+ populations are disproportionately higher. Strong said he understood but still felt it necessary to include Native men and boys in the bill.

“I would love to see … murdered and missing indigenous people, because it sounds like this is a problem that not just women, girls and LGBTQ experience,” he said. “And maybe it’s not as bad, but it’s probably still higher than my community.”

While Romero said she understood his concern, she also said she felt uncomfortable making this change.

“Right now we need to make sure we’re getting the right data,” she said, adding that they need to “make sure we’re classifying people the right way.”

What makes this task force unique is that it doesn’t just comprise elected officials or the Department of Public Safety; it ensures that there are indigenous populations as part of the task force.

“A lot of times we like to make decisions about particular populations, but we don’t really include them in those conversations,” Romero said.

Salt Lake Valley resident Michelle Mckee, who identified herself as an indigenous Two-Spirit, said she doesn’t feel safe in Utah.

“It’s demoralizing to have to put statistics and have to frame our lived experiences,” Mckee said. “Our bodies are evidence. And as someone who identifies as transmasculine, I am a boy. It does effect me. And just because I’m not a biologically born ‘boy’ does not mean that this task force won’t have the scope to protect someone like myself.”

The bill proposes to allocate $40,000 to fund task force efforts. Task force members would meet in November to assess gathered data and design a pathway to move forward and invoke positive change.

HB116 passed the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee by a vote of 8-1 and has moved on to the full House. As of Tuesday morning, it is on the House’s third reading calendar.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2020 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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