January 30, 2020

White House task force on murdered and missing Indigenous crisis meets with local criticism

Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump at CPAC 2011. Flickr /cc

The Department of Justice held its first task force meeting on murdered and missing American Indians and Alaska Natives with much fanfare Wednesday in Washington, D.C., but local leaders question whether the federal government’s efforts will be enough.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order late last year establishing what he called “Operation Lady Justice,” an interagency group led by the U.S. Department of Justice, that would “aggressively” address the crisis of murdered and missing women and girls in Indigenous communities. Although no one knows for sure how many Indigenous women and children are murdered or go missing, the federal government estimates that 1.5 million Indigenous women and children experience violence, including sexual violence, in their lifetime.

Just prior to Trump’s announcement, Secretary of the Interior William Barr told a group at the Flathead Reservation in Montana last year that the Department of Justice would commit $1.5 million to hire specialized coordinators to help improve law enforcement response to the problem.

But Democratic U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland,an enrolled member of Laguna Pueblo, has previously said that the DOJ’s plan “falls short,” issued a critical statement to NM Political Report Thursday.

“Solving the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people is going to take a sustained, comprehensive effort between tribal, state and federal governments to find real solutions. Though I am pleased to see the task force — which is modeled after my Not Invisible Act – I still have concerns because the President’s Executive Order removes the voices of survivors and tribal leaders, has a short two-year lifespan, and lacks concrete transparency and consultation requirements. If we are truly going to address this crisis, we need the Administration to recognize the centuries of violence that Native people have endured, which won’t be solved in two years or with only $1.5 million. I am concerned with the lack of transparency and whether tribal consultation processes are being respected. If we’re going to see steps towards a solution to this centuries-old issue, these basic changes must be made and include all branches of government. Sovereign nations must be listened to and genuine consultation must be part of a sustained response and action plan to MMIW,” Haaland said through email.

Sen. Tom Udall, also a Democrat, is also critical of the effort. Udall is vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis throughout Indian Country demands our federal government’s—and the nation’s—full attention. While it’s a positive development that the White House is holding its first Operation Lady Justice meeting, and that after years of inaction, the Trump Administration is now paying attention, I’m concerned that this initiative is not enough to help achieve justice for victims and their families. We need to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and pass Savanna’s Act, the Not Invisible Act, and other urgent MMIW bills as soon as possible,” Udall said in a statement to NM Political Report.

The task force can review Indian Country cold cases and try to improve law enforcement response. The task force will provide a progress report to the White House by the end of 2020 and a full report on its activities and accomplishments by the end of 2021.