Gov. Gary Herbert’s signature on a legislative bill will set in a motion the creation and funding of a task force aimed at solving and reducing crimes against Utah’s native women.
HB 116, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, passed on March 4 and signed into law on March 28. Romero hopes the law will reduce to improve the information exchange about crimes against women and girls between Native American tribes and state entities.
Previously, many residents have reported missing indigenous women, but a great percentage of the missing people were never been found or evidence about these cases was inconslusive.
Romero said, “There was a report recently put out by the Urban Indian Health Institute, that reported that Utah was one of the Top 10 states for murdered and missing Indigenous women.”
Moroni Benally, coordinator for public policy and advocacy with Restoring Ancestral Winds, said: “About 71% of Native Americans that now live in urban areas outside of the reservation. One of the things that our organization has been working with is violence within native communities.”
Benally, also said: “There’s a study by the National Institute of Justice that show that in native communities in urban areas, the homicide rate for native women is 10 times the national average.”
During a legislative hearing during the 2020 Legislature, these rates were cited by those who testified in favor of HB 116.
“The Utah Office of Vital Records from 2019 notes that Native aAmericans are victims of homicide at four times the rate of caucasians,” said Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, chairwoman of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah. She pointed to systemic problems in collecting and reporting crime data.
“Currently, what we’re dealing with in the state is data mismanagement or data management infrastructure errors and data collection, what’s an example of our racial misclassification, no category for race misclassification of crimes,” Borchardt-Slayton said.
“It could address the limited understandings and current data that we have in the state. The task force could also help support the eight federally recognized tribes in Utah,” she said.
HB 116’s intent is for the new task force to seek more accurate data in the state, as well as to improve safety of women and girls who belong to a native communities.
Michelle Samuelson, chairwoman of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, said: “I have experienced situations in which I felt uncomfortable. I am a victim of sexual abuse. I am really excited to see such proactive work.”
Michelle McKee, a Utah resident, told lawmakers, “I do not feel safe in this state. I know that I have a target on my back. . . It’s really dehumanizing to have to come here (to the Capitol) and beg people to recognize us when this should have been in recognition decades ago.”
McKee said: “I would wish that my voice would be taken seriously and there will be support from the hill, so that I don’t have to continue to go to another funeral.”
Not only was this bill supported by Utah residents, it was applauded by different politicians involved in the Legislature.
“This is one that should be our top priority,” said Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, “Our young women and women as a whole are dying at disproportionate rates, they just happen to be indigenous or Native Americans and I think it’s irresponsible for us not to do anything.”
With the positive hope on the safety on the side of Native American women and girls, Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation, said, “[This bill] allows us to start dialogue, start gathering information together as a coalition of all kinds of groups that can come together to solve the problem and give us answers.”
Braidan Weeks, Utah resident and Native American, also said BYU students can help. “Treat them like they are people part of your community, and be aware of the reality that there is,” he said.