SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – The beat from Indigenous drum groups and jingle of Native American dancers echoed through the Utah State Capitol rotunda Tuesday afternoon, a similar scene to what took place more than a year ago.

Only this time, the local Native American community was celebrating the passage of HB 116 in both the Senate and House, the first piece of legislation in Utah to address the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. All it needs now is a signature from Gov. Gary Herbert.

“When many of my colleagues ask why this task force is so important, I remind them not everybody is seen. Sometimes people are invisible and when we don’t see people in our world, we don’t think it’s an issue that impacts us,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Angela Romero.

Advocates painted a sobering picture of the epidemic. According to Yolanda Francisco-Nez, the executive director of Restoring Ancestral Winds, approximately 84 percent of Native American women will experience violence at least once in their lifetime.

“Homicide is the second or third leading cause of death for Native American girls ages one through nine, where domestic violence, which is an intersection of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is committed by a majority in Utah of non-Native perpetrators,” said Francisco-Nez.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Nathan Brown recalled alarming testimony from a young girl rescued from sex trafficking.

“On a slow day, a young girl, a young boy, or a transgender individual will be sold for sex about 12 times. But on a busy day, let’s say where the Super Bowl or male camps are happening, that young girl said she was sold 50 times in one day,” said Brown. “These are the stark realities that we’re talking and this all connects to our missing and murdered.”

Back in February 2018, ABC4 News featured a Sandy family who spent the past 35 years with no answers as to who killed their daughter, sister, aunt, and mother, Priscilla Lee. She was ambushed in her home on the Native American reservation and then murdered.

Lee’s case is one of hundreds of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women cases that have remained unsolved for decades. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, Salt Lake City ranks as the 9th highest city in the nation for these cases. Utah ranks as the 8th highest state.

Experts said the epidemic is fueled by a list of challenges such as shortage in law enforcement officers on the reservation, inability to prosecute non-Native offenders off Native land, underreporting, racial misclassification, poor relationships between law enforcement and Native American communities, poor record-keeping protocols, institutional racism in the media, and a lack of substantive relationships journalists and Native American communities.

“This didn’t happen overnight and this is important. This is first-nation people. These are individuals and communities who have been here forever and a lot of the time, we’ve neglected those voices,” Rep. Romero told ABC4 News in December when she first introduced the bill. “This is the first step to address an issue that’s been around from the creation of our country.”

The passage of the bill came with some compromises between Romero and floor sponsor Sen. David Hinkins with nearly half of the task force members cut and funding reduced by 75 percent of the original proposed amount. The revised version of the bill also excludes members of LGBTQ individuals in the Indigenous community.

“This is not the end. so I just want to remind all those who have worked with me and were disappointed with the compromises that this is just the starting point. Sometimes when you start, you have to educate and that’s how you move forward,” said Rep. Romero. 

She added, “What this bill and task force will do is let everyone in Utah know there are many voices here in Utah. We have to make sure we protect all voices, we are supportive of all communities, and we don’t let this epidemic continue.”

The duties of the Missing and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force will consist of, but are not limited to:

  • Conduct appropriate consultations with tribal governments on the scope and nature of the issues
  • Develop model protocols and procedures to apply to new and unsolved cases
  • Improving law enforcement and prosecutor response to high volume of cases
  • Address challenges that may be presented in cases involving female victims
  • Collecting and sharing data among various jurisdictions and law enforcement agencies
  • Improve use of existing criminal databases

The task force will have until November 30 to provide a report to the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on their findings and make recommendations for improvements in the criminal justice and social service systems.

“We do not walk alone. The prayers of many have been answered. Together, we have achieved the impossible,” said Francisco-Nez. “The survival is deeply embedded in traditions practiced by our ancestors, who offer strength and resilience for us. The determination of Native people to be equal to the task of justice for Native women and girls facing violence is essential to achieving true liberty.”

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