The Not Invisible Act Implementation
How Will Systemic Barriers Foundational to the MMIW Crisis Be Removed?
How Will the Changes Needed Become Reality?
October 10, 2020 will be the one-year anniversary of the passage of two bills intended to address the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW)—Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act (NIA).
This legislation was enacted in response to the cries of mothers for justice for their daughters and the calls for action by grieving family members of disappeared and murdered Indigenous sisters. The statutes are in response to the spilled blood and suffering of Indigenous women that continues to be tied to the vulnerabilities of federal Indian law and under-resourcing of Indian nations; and the harsh reality of the spectrum of violence created by centuries of Federal Government policies meant to diminish and destroy Tribal sovereignty.
“We will not be silenced,” said Juana Majel Dixon, Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians. “As Tribal leadership, we have a responsibility to raise our voices for those who cannot speak. The Savanna’s and Not Invisible Acts are the result of the families, Tribes, communities, and grassroots movement calling for justice. We must hold the government accountable for meaningful implementation of these two acts.”
Savanna’s Act is named in honor of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old pregnant citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota who was viciously murdered in August 2017. The Act aims to improve MMIW data collection and accessibility and directs the Department of Justice to review, revise, and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. The NIA complements the Savanna’s Act, with its purpose to identify and combat violent crime against Indians within Indian lands by creating an advisory commission on reducing violent crime against Native people.
Participation of Families and Advocacy Organization in the NIA Commission
“The grassroots organized to make the issue of MMIW a national priority,” said Carmen O’Leary, Director, Native Women Society of the Great Plains. “Clearly, the barriers that exist cannot be solely fixed by the current system, or we would not have the crisis of Native women going missing and being murdered. The success of the Not Invisible Act is tied to the active involvement and support of the families, advocates, and Tribes who have worked to hold federal law enforcement agencies accountable.”
The success of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) 2005 mandated consultation holds valuable lessons, including the important connection to the federal government with Tribal advocates and the grassroots movement to end the spectrum of violence against Native women. These brave women have informed the government to create systemic changes found in VAWA, the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA), and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA).
Families, advocacy organizations, Tribes, and communities understand the roadblocks and systemic barriers that must be removed. Accordingly, grassroots advocates and families worked hard to ensure their representation on the NIA Commission as a statutory mandate.
NIA Federal Registry
On August 5, 2021, the DOI Bureau of Indian Affairs released a notice for nominations for the Not Invisible Act Joint Commision on Reducing Crime Against Indians. The Federal Registry is available at n8ve.net/zqDaE.
The NIA establishes an advisory committee of Tribal and federal stakeholders to make recommendations to the Department of Interior (DOI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) on actions the Federal Government can take to identify, coordinate, and combat violent crime on Indian lands and against Indians including disappearances, homicide, violent crime and trafficking. In addition, the NIA mandates the participation of two family members of murdered Indian people and two family members of missing Indian people, and not fewer than three Tribal advocacy organizations focused on violence against women and children. Unfortunately, serving on the commission is not compensated.
“We recommended at the NIA Consultation that the family members and non-federal Tribal organizations be compensated for their time,” said Majel-Dixon. “How does the DOI and DOJ think family members will participate? Take leave from their jobs? Sacrifice family income to pay the expenses they will incur while serving on the Commission? It is incomprehensible that the government thinks the family and the advocacy organization can sit on the commission without compensation. Covering travel expenses falls short of the federal responsibility under the NIA.”
The DOI and DOJ must coordinate to identify resources specifically to compensate Tribal members for the significant time expected as commission members. The family and Tribal members of the commission should not be based on who can afford to sit on the commission.
“What about the women?”—Tillie Black Bear
Since the NIA was signed into law, a growing concern has centered on confusion about the focus of the NIA and its connection to the crisis of MMIW.
It is essential to understand the connection between domestic, dating, sexual, and trafficking violence and the high incidence of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States. This spectrum of violence is specific to Native women. DOJ research shows the disproportionate rate of violence committed against Native women including the lethality and severity, which often requires increased medical care, more so than other populations victimized by violence.
Will the NIA Commission acknowledge this reality? Will the DOI facilitate a process to deepen its understanding of the barriers that must be removed to specifically address MMIW? If so, this process requires addressing the comprehensive needs of Native women who suffer domestic and sexual violence and further offer support for culturally appropriate advocacy services for Native women. The process of healing is unique to each survivor. But it is crucial that as Native women access services on their journey to healing, that it is recognized that they were victimized not only because they are women, but because they are Native women. For that same reason, prevention efforts must also be culturally based.
To achieve meaningful recommendations, the commission must begin, be guided by, and end with a central focus on the entire spectrum of violence faced by Indigenous women. The commission must listen to family members, advocates and Tribes to attain significant law and policy reforms needed to address the MMIW crisis.
While these two bills are a small step forward in addressing the crisis of MMIW, the NIA Commission offers the possibility of real change. This possibility is not absolute, a given, or guaranteed. It will be a difficult road, with ongoing challenges to overcome the systemic view of minimizing violence against Native women—because they are Native and because they are women.
Not Invisible Act Consultation
In efforts to engage Tribal and stakeholder input, the DOI hosted a consultation about the implementation of the Not Invisible Act. However, with short notice, little coordination with Indian Tribes and a scheduling conflict with the Family Youth and Services Bureau (FYSB) Tribal Consultation, Tribal leaders and stakeholders had to scramble to prepare and participate amidst the on-going pandemic.
“The Tribal response to the NIA consultation is not a mystery. It had short notice, but more importantly, the development of the consultations did not actively involve the Tribal stakeholders. Going forward, this must change,” said Majel-Dixon.
In 2005, like the 2020 NIA, Tribal grassroots advocates organized with their Tribal Leaders to inform and influence congressional champions and federal departments about violence against Native women. Again, meaningful government-to-government consultation served as an essential link to the successful and full implementation of the VAWA Tribal provisions.
Like the federal response to MMIW, the response to domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking reflects a system-wide failure beyond that of individual employees. It is clear that meaningful consultation is essential. The inclusion of consultation and mandated Tribal representation in the VAWA and NIA is not a coincidence. The purpose of VAWA and NIA are linked because the crisis of MMIW is the predictable outcome of the lack of protections afforded Indigenous women since contact.
“Since the passage of the Tribal Title of the VAWA 2005, the consultation process has matured,” said Majel-Dixon. “There are pre-consultation scoping calls about scheduling, site selection, selection of the facilitator, agenda, and other items. We also created a 120-day notification mandate to ensure a meaningful consultation process. As a result, the process allows for preparation, attendance, and robust engagement of Tribal leaders.”
The NIA Commission Has the Potential to Create Systemic Changes Needed
Both Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act are small victories for Tribes across the country. Increased attention to the issue of MMIW helped push the bills across the finish line. Secretary Haaland, in her former congressional capacity and Sharice Davids (D-KS) on the House side and Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) on the Senate side led the charge alongside Tribal leaders and long-time grassroots advocates who organized tirelessly to get the MMIW crisis recognized and addressed at the federal level.
Building on that momentum, the NIA can become a historic step forward to address and remove systemic barriers Indigenous women face in the United States. As Rose Borkowski, a Yup’ik elder and lifelong advocate for Native women, often said during her life, “Nothing is impossible, everything is possible.”