How can Colorado address high rate of missing and murdered indigenous people? Advocates call for focused office

Donna Chrisjohn has gotten two speeding tickets over the past six years. One listed her as white; the other, Hispanic. Each a reminder that her ethnicity, and the heightened threat of violence she faces as an indigenous person, is too often ignored.

Indigenous people face violence at higher rates than the population at large — and too often not properly tracked, according to researchers. Those misidentifications serve as small reminders that if something were to happen to her, would her case be properly investigated? Would law enforcement know to talk to members of her tribe, or understand her community as they pursued it?

Or would Chrisjohn, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, be chalked up as a missing white or Hispanic woman? Would she be another missing indigenous person who isn’t counted and for whom justice isn’t properly pursued?

More than half of indigenous women experience sexual violence in their lifetime, and 96% of victims experience it from non-indigenous people, according to the National Congress of American Indians. The murder rate of indigenous women is three times that of white women. In 2016, the National Crime Information Center tracked more than 5,700 missing indigenous women and girls; only 116 were reported in Department of Justice statistics, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.

For two years, Chrisjohn and more than a dozen other indigenous Coloradans worked to address the disproportionate violence their community faces and ensure victims are taken seriously.

The work is poised to bear fruit after a vote in the General Assembly. The bill would create a specific office — led and steered by indigenous people — to address the disparities, help investigate the cases, create best practices around investigating those crimes and more intentionally track and respond to cases of missing indigenous people.

“Our predators look at our population, look and know that there is a jurisdictional issue that exists,” Chrisjohn said. “Our predators know we will not be identified correctly in the system, so they can come after us and know they will not be prosecuted, especially non-native people.”

“I trust our community being empowered”

The bill, SB22-150, passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote earlier this year, and received preliminary approval in the House. It was carried through the chambers by Sen. Jessie Danielson and Reps. Monica Duran and Leslie Herod, all Democrats who say they are merely legislative navigators. Chrisjohn and other indigenous advocates and tribal leaders are the ones who designed the bill and are leading the effort.

“Could you imagine your child not being included in missing person databases?” Herod, of Denver, said. “It says you don’t matter.”

However, the details of the bill aren’t yet final as Gov. Jared Polis threatened a veto over the proposed set-up of the office, advocates said. They are working on a mutually agreeable outcome, with legislative backers emphasizing that it’s up to tribal leaders and the advocates. Whatever happens will need to be soon: The legislature’s last day is Wednesday.

In a statement, Polis spokesperson Conor Cahill said the office supports the goals of the bill, and addressing the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people, and working toward that goal. He added, “if this can’t be resolved legislatively we are confident we can do so through other means.”

In a letter to bill sponsors in April, Lt. Gov. Dianna and Department of Public Safety Executive Director Stan Hilkey wrote that “there is no doubt” violence against indigenous people in Colorado is greatly underreported. But creating an office in the Department of Public Safety would come with “expectations that are beyond the current mission and skill set” of the department.

They instead suggested using existing resources and departments to establish a time-limited taskforce to look at the wider issues.

But the indigenous leaders who designed the bill want the dedicated office and the assurance of their community members advocating for their community.

“I trust our community being empowered, to be given a powerful seat at the table, and get in these agencies and help them do right by us,” Raven Payment, of the Ojibwe Mohawk Nation, said. “We just need this seat at the office.”

“A giant step to help repair the harm”

As proposed, backers say the effort will provide the technical and practical assistance they hope will lead to real-world relief for grieving families. It would also give indigenous people a voice, and agency as sovereign people, too long stripped away, they say.

“Because of the indigenous advocacy that went into it, it speaks to ‘we believe you and we’re going to honor your ask, and we’re going to acknowledge the indigenous voice and the indigenous autonomy, and honor you and your families and your communities so that you can solve these cases,’” Chrisjohn said.

Statistics from the National Congress of American Indians show four of five indigenous women face violence in their lifetimes. Among the dozen-plus advocates who directed the design of the bill, it’s 100%, Chrisjohn and Payment said.

The threat looms close enough to them that Chrisjohn wouldn’t let her children leave her side in stores. Not for a quick drink, not to go to the bathroom.

“If we want to be honest about the historical value, this has been going on since 1492,” Chrisjohn said. “So 500 years of impact upon indigenous women being hypersexualized and romanticized, our culture and our being romanticized, has taken us to a point where we’re not taken seriously not just as women, but as indigenous people. Our identity is not taken seriously.”

The office Chrisjohn and Payment and their group proposed, and ushered through both chambers of the General Assembly, would be formally titled the Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.

Its head would be required by law to be a person closely connected to a tribe or indigenous community and knowledgeable about criminal investigations. The office itself would, in effect, serve as a coordinating office for investigating these crimes against indigenous people and established best practices for doing so.

In addition to being a powerful seat at the table in ensuring the the cases are taken seriously, it would be tasked with spreading cultural competency across law enforcement so that message spreads to community members.

“When a person goes missing or is murdered, when law enforcement misidentifies us, it kind of signals to me that they’re not going to do the legwork to actually talk to people in that person’s life,” Payment said.

The bill serves as “a giant step to help repair the harm that has been perpetuated since contact,” Payment said.

After the bill passed the House of Representatives on a voice vote Tuesday, Payment, Chrisjohn and bill sponsors met with Polis for more than an hour to iron out concerns his administration had with the structure of the liaison office.

Danielson got involved in the bill after running a bill last year to ban indigenous people and icons being used as mascots. The office was proposed by tribal leaders and would represent the state putting money where its mouth is, with dedicated staff guided by indigenous voices, she said.

“The state of Colorado has turned its back on indigenous people for a really long time, and finally there’s a solid solution to help end this particular crisis,” Danielson said. “They’ve come to us and said listen to us, please, here’s what we’re proposing. And I think the state of Colorado should enthusiastically embrace it, pass the bill and work alongside the community to address the crisis.”

The bill was crafted the way indigenous leaders know will help their community in the most significant and immediate way, she said. They don’t need other people telling them what’s best for their community.

For Chrisjohn and Payment, solutions to the crisis couldn’t come soon enough. They and others have been manually combing cold case files and other records to identify missing and murdered indigenous relatives, many misclassified, and never specifically tallied as such.

When the bill was introduced in March, they had identified about 50 missing and murdered indigenous people in Colorado in recent decades. By the time the House voted on it, it had grown to 54.

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