“Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades. Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian Country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated,” Haaland said in a news release in April announcing the Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) task force. The task force will use federal resources to support investigations into unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people in addition to working on gathering information about the crisis and active cases, according to the Interior Department.
According to a 2016 report, more than 500 Indigenous women and girls have disappeared or been killed in 71 urban American cities. The actual number is likely to be higher; a number of cases go unnoticed or reported. According to the National Crime Information Center, in 2016, 5,712 indigenous women and girls were reported missing, but only 116 were logged by the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons’ database.
According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, when information on missing persons is collected, law enforcement often omits or misclassifies racial data making it even more difficult to track the number of Indigenous people missing. An investigation by The New York Times found that Native women are “often misclassified as Hispanic or Asian or other racial categories on missing-persons forms” resulting in fewer reported crimes.
Additionally, tribes have no jurisdiction over missing or murdered cases since they are classified as major crimes, thus tribes are left to rely on these law enforcement officials for justice. But without adequate record-keeping, classifying missing persons as the wrong race, and inconsistencies, the problem will remain.
Haaland’s initiative will address this by expanding on current laws including Savanna’s Act by requiring training for law enforcement agencies and officials on “how to record tribal enrollment for victims in federal databases.” This requirement will address the issue of law enforcement consistently failing to record a victim’s tribal affiliation resulting in severe undercounts, Mother Jones reported. Haaland’s initiative will increase funding for these trainings from $1 to $6 million and work on developing strategies to work with existing law enforcement.
Working with local law enforcement is the first step. Unfortunately, data has found that those who commonly attack Native women are classified as non-native offenders or white. Because these individuals cannot be prosecuted on tribal lands, working with law enforcement is essential for justice and accountability. According to a study of those Native women who experience sexual violence, 96% of them had a non-Native perpetrator, Mother Jones reported.
“Indian issues were relegated to tribal offices within federal agencies,” but under Biden, “Every federal agency is taking our commitment to strengthening tribal agency and self-government seriously. We’ll keep working until our people stop going missing without a trace,” Haaland said.
Haaland also noted that the Interior Department will evaluate the unit’s success by how many cases it can close. “Right now there are people in this country who don’t know where their loved ones are. … We want to be able to answer that question, we want to make sure that folks have closure.”
But accountability is not the only issue: Native communities also often lack the resources and means to help survivors and victims’ families address the violence they face. Without resources such as shelters for safety, culturally specific counselors and advocates, and education on violence and its impact, Native women are often left with no options after facing violence. Advocates are thus calling for resources to not only be directed toward investigations but prevention and healing to ensure the ongoing crisis is addressed.
In an official proclamation on May 5, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, President Joe Biden acknowledged the issue of lack of resources and stated he would “allocate the necessary resources and muster the necessary commitment to addressing and preventing this ongoing tragedy not only demeans the dignity and humanity of each person who goes missing or is murdered, it sends pain and shockwaves across our Tribal communities.”
Enough is enough, we cannot continue to allow this violence to increase. Native women experience some of the highest rates of violence in the U.S., greater than any other racial or identity group. According to the National Institute of Justice, more than 1.5 million Indigenous women have experienced some form of violence, including sexual assault, domestic abuse, stalking, or psychological aggression by an intimate partner. We can no longer sit in silence and must act to protect these women and girls.