Activists marching in Los Angeles in 2019. “Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said last week. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)
The U.S. Department of the Interior is creating a new unit to lead and help coordinate investigations into the ongoing crisis of murdered and missing American Indian and Alaska Native people.
Interior Secretary Debra Haaland, the first Indigenous person to lead the agency, announced Thursday the formation of the Missing & Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.
“Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades,” Haaland said in a statement. “Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated.”
She added that the unit will be able to provide resources so these cases are prioritized.
During her time in Congress, Haaland was a leader in a bipartisan effort in the House and Senate to pass legislation to create a commission to investigate missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski pushed legislation last year to create the commission and to help improve the government’s coordination with tribal governments. The two bills were signed into law in October by President Donald Trump.
“It’s unacceptable that so many Native women are being taken and that their families have failed to receive justice,” the senators wrote in an op-ed for Indian Country Today, in which they noted the CDC reports homicide is the third leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women.
“Conflicts over jurisdiction and gaps in sharing information have hampered investigations into those deaths and denied closure to too many families,” the senators wrote. “To make the problem worse, we still lack sufficient data on the crimes, and what data exists isn’t always shared.”
“Both laws require federal agencies to improve coordination with local partners and ensure tribal governments have the federal backing to address a crisis that has been under-resourced for far too long,” they continued.
Haaland also pledged to senators during her confirmation hearing that she would continue that work if she were confirmed to lead Interior.
In 2016 the National Crime Information Center found 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women. The center also found that Indigenous women experience 10 times more violence than the national average.
A similar task force—Operation Lady Justice—was created in 2019 to investigate those unresolved cases. Haaland said the newly formed unit will build on the work from Operation Lady Justice as well as work with tribal and FBI investigators on active cases.
“Whether it’s a missing family member or a homicide investigation, these efforts will be all hands-on deck,” Haaland said. “We are fully committed to assisting Tribal communities with these investigations, and the MMU will leverage every resource available to be a force-multiplier in preventing these cases from becoming cold case investigations.”
The chairman of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, Raúl Grijalva, (D-Ariz.), praised the creation of the unit in a statement.
“I applaud Secretary Haaland’s leadership in advancing this critical effort to protect Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives using the full power of the Interior Department and appropriate inter-agency partnerships,” he said.
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