By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Federal government officials held an official meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 29 to launch a task force to tackle the generations-long issue of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. The task force is co-chaired by U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and includes officials from the Departments of Justice, Interior, and Health and Human Services.
The task force, which is known as Operation Lady Justice, was formed with an Executive Order by President Donald J. Trump on Nov. 26, 2019 which states, in part, “My Administration has heard the ongoing and serious concerns of tribal governments regarding missing and murdered members of American Indian and Alaska Native communities, particularly women and girls. To address the severity of those concerns, top officials within the federal government will coordinate and engage with the tribal governments.”
Secretary Barnhardt said in a statement on Wednesday, “President Trump is committed to addressing systematic challenges within Indian Country, and this task force will develop and implement an aggressive, government-wide strategy to combat the crisis of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Natives. By working together and listing to impacted citizens and tribal communities, we intent to tackle these complex issues.”
In a press conference call on Wednesday, Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs and member of the task force, said, “Today marks a giant step forward in addressing the complex challenges in Indian Country and Alaska Native villages. The reality is the epidemic of missing and murdered American Indians continues to cast a necessary spotlight on the dire need for action which is why we’re here today.”
Sweeney, a member of the Native Village of Barrow Inupiat Traditional Government, added, “We need to continue to find our strategies and maximize our partnerships to deliver services within our limited amount of resources. President Trump and Secretary Barnhardt continue to support policies and efforts that empower the Department of the Interior, especially Indian Affairs, to reclaim our Native communities. And, I am especially proud of the Presidential Order that declared May 5 as Missing and Murdered American Indian and Alaska Native Awareness Day. This was in an effort to nationally elevate the awareness as too many of our women, children, and men go missing or fall victim to murder.”
According to information from the Justice Department, the task force is specifically designated to:
- Consult with tribal governments on the scope and nature of the problem; the task force will hold regional consultations and listening sessions at several locations around the country the task force will also host a listening session at the National Congress of American Indians’ Executive Council Winter Session in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 12.
- Develop model protocols and procedures for addressing both new and unsolved cases of missing and murdered persons in tribal communities;
- Establish a multi-disciplinary, multi-jurisdictional team, which will include tribal law enforcement, to review cold cases;
- Address issues related to roles, authorities and jurisdiction among tribal, local, state and federal agencies; and
- Develop and execute a public awareness, education and outreach campaign for affected communities.
“The disappearance and death of American Indian and Alaska Native people, particularly women and girls, is an especially tragic chapter in a long story or marginalization and trauma suffered by native people,” Attorney General Barr said in a statement on Wednesday. “We are committed to addressing this challenge, to reducing the violence and protecting the vulnerable from exploitations and abuse. The task force is eager to get to work to address the issues that underlie this terrible problem, and work with our tribal partners to find solutions, raise awareness, and bring answers and justice to the grieving.”
According to a report from the National Congress of American Indians Police Research Center in February 2018, “In the United States, violence against AI/AN (American Indian/Alaska Native) women has reached devastating levels on tribal lands and in Alaska Native villages.” They reported the following statistics garnered from the National Institute of Justice Research Report from May 2016:
- AI/AN women face a murder rate 10 times the national average
- The murder rate of AI/AN women is 2.8 times that of non-Hispanic white women
- 84.3 percent of AI/AN women have experienced violence in their lifetime
- 56.1 percent of AI/AN women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime
- 55.5 percent of AI/AN women have experienced physical violence by intimate partners in their lifetime
- 48.8 percent of AI/AN women have been stalked in their lifetime
Additional task force members include: Assistant Secretary Sweeney; Katharine Sullivan, principal deputy assistant attorney general; Terry Wade, executive assistant director of FBI Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch; Laura Rogers, acting director of Office on Violence Against Women; Charles Addington, deputy bureau director of BIA Office of Justice Services; Trent Shores, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma and chair of the Native American Issues Subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee; and Jean Hovland, deputy assistant secretary for Native American Affairs and Commissioner in the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Native Americans.
The task force will have a progress report due on Nov. 26 and their full report must be filed no later than Nov. 26, 2021.