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Senate approves committee to study murders of Native American women

May 3, 2019

A bill aimed at shining a light on cases of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls, often referred to as MMIWG cases, won unanimous approval in the Arizona Senate Thursday.

House Bill 2570, introduced by Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, would create a committee to study murders of indigenous women and girls and would submit a detailed report later this year to the governor and state legislators.

The bill faces a final vote in the House of Representatives before it reaches Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk.

Jermaine sat in the back of the Senate as her colleagues voted on the bill, which is is similar to a measure passed last year in Washington which was partially inspired by a lawmaker’s viewing of the filmWind River, which focuses on a murder on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

“In her first session, she’s been a champion on this,” Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, said of Jermaine before his vote.

If the bill becomes law, the committee will consist of chairpersons of the House of Representatives and the Senate’s Indigenous Peoples Caucus, the attorney general or a designee, the director of the Department of Public Safety or their designee, a sheriff and county attorney from each county, one tribal representative, one victim advocate, one tribal chief of police, one peace officer from a reservation, a social worker and others who work with Native American communities.

“We have a nationwide crisis of data,” Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said during voting in the Senate. Steele sponsored identical legislation earlier this year, but the Senate never considered it.

An Arizona Mirror analysis of the sparse publicly available data found that more than 25 percent of murders involving idigenous women in Arizona go unsolved.

However, when it comes to reporting on Native deaths, there are major issues when it comes to the data.

As researchers with the Urban Indian Health Institute pointed out in a study last year, many agencies that report crime data to the FBI are not doing so properly. The Santa Fe Police Department told UIHI researchers last year that they could not separate Native women within its own data sets.

Additionally, race is generally not determined by the medical examiner’s office and is determined by whoever is issuing the death certificate.

It’s unclear what are the exact limitations of the data for Arizona, which is something Steele said she hopes will change after the study committee submits its findings.

All the current data is based on FBI crime data, which is voluntarily submitted by departments and has been found to have flaws, so it is unclear what the real numbers of unsolved MMIWG cases are in Arizona.

The Ak-Chin Tribal Police reported only a single homicide in the FBI records, and it remains unsolved. The Tohono O’odham Police reported 33 murders from 2006 to 2016 but solved only 2 of them, the data shows. The Fort Apache Police Agency reported 91 homicides from 2006 to 2016 and solved only one.

The bill also had a personal impact for one member of the Senate.

Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, spoke passionately about an MMIWG case that was close to home.

Her niece, Amanda Dakota Webster, was killed in Kentucky late last year.

She was a resident of the small town of Cameron on the Navajo Reservation due east of the Grand Canyon.

She was a mother of three sons. Unlike many other MMIWG cases, her murderer was found.

Peshlakai, a member of the Navajo Nation, spoke about a Navajo tradition in regards to death when discussing her yes vote on the bill.

“When a person passes on, we don’t say their name anymore,” Peshlakai said, adding that families tend to move on, pack up their loved one’s belongings and go forward.

But Peshlakai said that tradition needs to change.

“We need to remember and say their names,” shesaid, holding back tears.

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