TOPEKA — While the world faces a global health crisis, advocates say, Indigenous people are facing an epidemic of their own with American Indians missing or murdered at disproportionately high rates.
Two legislators are acting to change that reality in Kansas.
As of Jan. 7, 2021, there are more than 696 missing American Indian or Alaskan Native people, including three in Kansas, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. A 2020 report using data from the Sovereign Bodies Institute, a nonprofit, Indigenous-led research organization, said 2,306 American Indian women and girls in the U.S have gone missing within the past 40 years, with 58% connected to homicide.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports American Indian women are murdered at rates more than 10 times the national average.
For this reason, Rep. Ponka-We Victors, a Wichita Democrat and one of two American Indian women in the Legislature, is taking another crack at legislation that would require training for law enforcement specific to missing and murdered Indigenous people.
“I know, and my family knows, that every time I get out on the highway or I go somewhere long distance by myself, I always have that statistic lingering over my head,” Victors said. “I’m always checking with my family because they know that at a high rate that we are missing or come up murdered, and it seems like nobody care or is doing something about it.”
The proposed legislation — which didn’t advance in the Senate last year but received unanimous support in the House — would call for the attorney general to organize training for law enforcement agencies on the issue of missing Indigenous people. Supporters of the bill hope educating agencies will help reduce crime toward Indigenous communities in Kansas.
The measure would require coordination between American Indian tribes, the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the state’s lead agency in missing persons cases.
The state is home to four tribes: the Iowa Tribe of Kansas, Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. There are strong Indigenous communities in Topeka, Wichita and Lawrence.
Despite a substantial Indigenous community, Kansas law does not currently have any policy addressing human trafficking or murder of Indigenous people.
Rep. Christina Haswood, a Lawrence Democrat and American Indian, cosponsored the bill. Providing testimony Tuesday on the bill to the House Judiciary Committee, Haswood said the measure would point Kansas in the right direction to address this crisis.
“The Kansas Legislature has yet to pass a bill that would be a first step to addressing missing and murdered Indigenous people,” Haswood said. “We all have the opportunity to do this, this session.”
Sara Rust-Martin, legal and policy director for the Kansas Coalition against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women must be addressed given the roots Indigenous people have in Kansas. She said this is a growing concern and one without a clear answer.
“I think we have to know better, know more,” Rust-Martin said. “This bill is not going to fix the problem, but it is a good first step in getting us in the right direction to really understand the scope of the problem and what we might be able to do.”
During the hearing before the judiciary committee, there were no opponents of the bill.
In written testimony in support of the measure, Attorney General Derek Schmidt said missing and murdered Indigenous people has been a recent focus for KBI.
“We applaud the efforts of the proponents of this bill to raise awareness of the issues surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous persons,” Schmidt said. “If the bill is adopted, we stand ready to assist in implementing this bill and coordinating appropriate training with the assistance of other agencies.”