In June of 2017, Ashley Loring HeavyRunner went missing. For over a year, her sister Kimberly Loring and other family members and friends have combed the mountains on the Blackfeet Reservation searching for her.
On Wednesday, Kimberly Loring HeavyRunner appeared before the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. to speak about her experiences with law enforcement and their response to her sister’s disappearance.
Kimberly told senators about the evidence she and other searchers found including a shirt they were told Ashley was last seen wearing and a pair of boots.
She said they gave the items to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and called them two weeks later after not hearing from them.
“It was after two weeks that we called to speak with them about this sweater,” she said. “They lost it. They called us and told us that ‘we do not know where this sweater is at.'”
Kimberly also told the committee about the lengths between updates from law enforcement and the lack of seriousness taken by officials.
In the end, Kimberly said her sister could be here or her family might have closure had someone taken Ashley’s case seriously.
“We are here for a new protocol,” Kimberly said. “What is the law enforcement supposed to do when missing and murdered girls go missing? It seems like they don’t know either. They are not communicating with us and I believe that we need a new protocol when it comes to missing and murdered indigenous women.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, senators questioned a panel of representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the BIA, and the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ).
Senator Jon Tester, who joins Senator Steve Daines as a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs, asked the panelists if they believed there was a problem in Indian Country. All three panelists replied yes.
Tester then demanded to know where exactly the problem stems.
“If it is a problem and you agree it is a problem, where is the problem with? Because if this was going on anywhere else in the country, dare say they would be incredible hearings in this body. So where is the problem so we know where to focus our efforts?” Tester asked.
According to Charles Addington, the BIA’s Deputy Associate Director, the problem comes down to coordination between law enforcement agencies.
Senator Steve Daines asked Kimberly Loring what would happen if she shot a grizzly bear, which is under strict federal regulations as an endangered species, while looking for her sister in the mountains.
Kimberly used an example of a deer that was poached on the reservation and stated the investigation into the poaching was more in-depth than missing or murdered indigenous women cases.
“I think this just comes back to the importance of why these issues need to be elevated to this community, to this nation’s capital,” Daines said. “This is a fundamental question of how we value a human life and those who are the most vulnerable.”
Kimberly Loring was joined by Patricia Alexander, who co-chairs Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribe’s Violence Against Women Task Force in Alaska, and Amber Crotty, a delegate of the Navajo Nation Council in Arizona.
According to one Committee on Indian Affairs member, there are three issues at the core of the crisis: poor coordination, insufficient resources, and limited data.
Almost all of the senators noted the high violence rates against Native American and Alaskan Indian women compared to any other demographic.
“We know we have a problem. The question is, “Are we willing to stand up and do something about it?” Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota asked.
Heitkamp introduced a bill called Savanna’s Act, which recently passed the Senate and is now in the hands of the House of Representatives.
The bill requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to update the online data entry format for federal databases to include a new field for users to input the victim’s tribal enrollment information or affiliation as well as make standardized guidelines, protocols, and requirements for missing and murdered indigenous people’s cases.
When asked what changes she would like to see, Kimberly responded that she wants an internal look at the agencies handling missing and murdered indigenous women cases.
“There is something seriously wrong here because our girls, our people, and our men are important. That’s why I’m here today to stress to you that we shouldn’t have to be here and plead to make us important,” she said.