How can Colorado handle the excessive price of lacking and murdered Native People? Proponents name for a concentrated workplace

Donna Chrisjohn has had two speeding tickets in the last six years. One listed her as white; the other, spanish. Each reminds that their ethnicity and the increased threat of violence they face as an indigenous person are all too often ignored.

Tribal peoples are more likely to face violence than the general population — and all too often, according to researchers, are not properly prosecuted. These misidentifications serve as a little reminder that if anything happened to her, her case would be properly investigated? Would law enforcement know how to talk to members of their tribe or understand their community if they were going after them?

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 tribal person uncounted and for whom justice is not properly prosecuted?

According to the National Congress of American Indians, more than half of Indigenous women experience sexual violence in their lifetime, and 96% of victims experience it from non-Indigenous peoples. The homicide 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 Justice Department 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 ready to bear fruit after a vote in the General Assembly. The bill would create a dedicated Aboriginal-led and steered office to address the inequalities, help investigate cases, establish best practices to investigate these crimes, and better track and respond to missing Aboriginal people cases.

“Our predators are looking at our population, looking and knowing there’s a jurisdictional issue,” Chrisjohn said. “Our predators know we are not correctly identified in the system, so they can track us and know they will not be prosecuted, especially non-natives.”

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Signs are placed on the ground before a rally and march in honor of National Awareness Day for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives at Acacia Park in Colorado Springs Thursday, May 5, 2022.

“I trust that our community will be strengthened”

The bill, SB22-150, passed the Senate in a bipartisan vote earlier this year and was provisionally approved in the House of Representatives. 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 drafted the law and are leading the effort.

“Can you imagine your child not being put on missing persons databases?” said Herod of Denver. “It says you don’t matter.”

Details of the bill are not final, however, as Gov. Jared Polis has threatened to veto the bureau’s proposed establishment, supporters said. They are working towards a mutually acceptable outcome, with lawmakers’ supporters emphasizing that it is up to the tribal leaders and the lawyers. Whatever has to happen, it has to happen soon: the last day of the legislature is Wednesday.

In a statement, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said the office supports the goals of the bill, addressing the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people and working toward that goal. He added: “If this cannot be resolved through legislation, we are confident that we can do so in other ways.”

In April, Lt. gov. Dianna and Department of Public Safety executive director Stan Hilkey said in a letter to funders that violence against Native Americans in Colorado is “undoubtedly” underreported. Establishing an office within the Department of Public Safety, however, would come with “expectations beyond the Department’s current mission and capabilities.”

Instead, they suggested using existing resources and departments to set up a time-limited task force to deal with the broader issues.

But the Indigenous leaders who drafted the bill want the dedicated office and reassurance from their parishioners that they care about their community.

“I trust our community will be empowered, given a powerful seat at the table, and stepping into these agencies and helping them do what’s right for us,” said Raven Payment of the Ojibwe Mohawk Nation. “We just need that seat in the office.”

Denver's Shannon Subburyan is in...

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Shannon Subburyan of Denver participates in a rally and march in honor of National Awareness Day for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives at Acacia Park in Colorado Springs on Thursday, May 5, 2022.

“A giant step towards repairing the damage”

As proposed, supporters say the effort will provide the technical and practical assistance they hope will result in real relief for grieving families. It would also give tribal peoples a voice and agency as sovereign people who have been taken away for too long, they say.

“Because of the indigenous advocacy that was in it, it says, ‘We believe you and we will honor your request, and we will recognize the voice of the indigenous people and the autonomy of the indigenous people and honor you and your families and your communities so that you can use them solve cases,’” said Chrisjohn.

Statistics from the National Congress of American Indians show that four out of five Indigenous women will experience violence in their lifetime. Among the more than a dozen supporters who guided the bill’s design, it’s 100%, said Chrisjohn and Payment.

The threat is so close to them that Chrisjohn wouldn’t let her children leave her side in business dealings. Not for a quick drink, not to go to the bathroom.

“If we’re going to be honest about historical value, it’s been since 1492,” Chrisjohn said. “500 years of exposure to the hypersexualization and romanticization of indigenous women, our culture, and our romanticization has brought us to a point where we are not just being taken seriously as women, but as indigenous peoples. Our identity is not taken seriously.”

The office proposed by Chrisjohn and Payment and their group, which was run by both chambers of the General Assembly, should be officially designated the Liaison Office for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.

Their leader would be required by law to be a person closely associated with a tribe or indigenous community and knowledgeable in criminal investigations. The bureau itself would effectively serve as a coordinating bureau for investigating these crimes against tribal peoples and establish best practices for doing so.

Not only would it be a powerful seat at the table to ensure cases are taken seriously, it would also be tasked with spreading cultural literacy among law enforcement so the message gets out to members of the community.

“If 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 is “a huge step in repairing the damage that has been sustained since contact,” Payment said.

After the bill passed the House of Representatives by ballot Tuesday, Payment, Chrisjohn and the bill’s sponsors met with Polis for more than an hour to address concerns his administration had about the structure of the liaison office.

Danielson participated in the bill after introducing legislation last year to ban tribal peoples and icons from being used as mascots. Proposed by tribal leaders, the office would represent the state, which puts money where its mouth is, with dedicated staff led by indigenous voices, she said.

“The state of Colorado has been turning its back on Native people for a really long time, and finally there is a solid solution to end this particular crisis,” Danielson said. “They came to us and said please listen to us, here is what we propose. And I think the state of Colorado should embrace it, pass the law, and work with the community to address the crisis.”

The bill was designed as Indigenous leaders know they will help their community in the most meaningful 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 could not come soon enough. She and others have manually combed through unsolved case files and other records to identify missing and murdered Indigenous relatives, many of whom were misclassified and never counted as such.

When the law was introduced in March, they had identified about 50 missing and murdered Native Americans in Colorado over the past few decades. By the time the House of Representatives voted on it, she had grown to 54.

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