An Epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

More than eighty percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence.[1] Half of indigenous women have experienced sexual violence.[2] Of the 5,712 cases of missing or murdered American Indian or Alaskan Native women reported in 2016, the Department of Justice’s missing persons database only recorded 116 cases.[3] Murder is the third-leading cause of death among indigenous women.[4] These statistics do not live in a bubble. Indigenous women, tribal governments, and Indian communities have long known how these statistics play out in daily life. It just took the federal government decades of inaction and apathy to finally be boxed into taking action.

On November 26, 2019, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13898 to establish a task force to address the epidemic of missing and murdered Native American persons.[5] The Order, in its purpose section, did state the goal of the task force would have a particular focus on women and girls, but the focus ended there. The remainder of the three-page order was completely devoid of any further mention of the gender-specific violence indigenous women face.[6] What the Order did outline was a mandate for the Department of Justice to provide funding and administrative support for the task force.[7] The Department of Justice must make these resources available to the task force for two years, during which time the task force must produce two reports to the White House summarizing any findings and recommendations.[8]

The task force, designated as Operation Lady Justice, currently comprises of federal officials.[9] Three of those officials have ties to Indian Country: Tara Sweeney, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, is a member of the Native Village of Barrow Inupiat Traditional Government; R. Trent Shores, a U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, is a member of the Choctaw Nation; and, Jeannie Hovland, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Native American Affairs and Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans at the Department of Health and Human Services, is a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe.[10] The perspectives and input from these individuals can provide some insight into specific tribal concerns; however, their appointment is not without criticism. Rep. Deb Haaland, a Congresswoman from New Mexico and a member of the Laguna Pueblo people, has criticized the appointment of solely federal officials.[11] In an address at George Washington University, she highlighted that the task force lacks the voices of survivors or tribal leaders, individuals that represent communities and sovereigns the federal government has often overlooked or purposefully ignored.[12] Rep. Haaland sponsors the Not Invisible Act, a House bill to “increase intergovernmental coordination to identify and combat violent crimes within Indian lands and of Indians.”[13] Since its introduction in May 2019, the Judiciary Committee has ordered the bill amended by voice vote after a mark-up session; however, no formal floor debate or actions have occurred.[14]

The glacial pace at which this bill has moved through Congress is yet another example of how slow the federal government has responded to this mounting epidemic. With that in mind, it is easy to laud the establishment of Operation Lady Justice. An executive order can by-pass the stalemates in a split Congress to provide an avenue to address this epidemic. However, too much self-congratulation can also lead to complacency and a belief that Operation Lady Justice is all the federal government has to offer. Rep. Greg Stanton, during a hearing to question FBI Director Christopher Wray of the sufficiency of the agency’s actions to address the crisis, took the opportunity to advocate for the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act[15], as both bills support more inclusive solutions.[16]

Perhaps it is not surprising that the President established this task force now. With a two-year timeframe, it can be touted as an attempt to address growing concerns from indigenous communities while dodging the fraught politicking that comes with a presidential election year. It can be another plank in a platform. But at the end of the day, Operation Lady Justice does not provide the comprehensive solution to ensure indigenous women can feel safe.

 

[1] Ending Violence Against Native Women, Indian Law Res. Ctr., https://indianlaw.org/issue/ending-violence-against-native-women (last visited Mar. 24, 2020).

[2] Id.

[3] Annita Lucchessi & Abigail Echo-Hawk, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls, Urban Indian Health Institute (Nov. 2018), https://www.uihi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Missing-and-Murdered-Indigenous-Women-and-Girls-Report.pdf.

[4] Id.

[5] Exec. Order No. 13898, 84 Fed. Reg. 66059 (Nov. 26, 2019).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Acee Agoyo, Trump administration faulted for efforts to address ‘epidemic’ of missing and murdered in Indian Country, Indianz (Feb. 10, 2020), https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/02/10/trump-administration-faulted-for-efforts.asp.

[10] Id.

[11] Press Release, Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Haaland Doesn’t Hold Back, Criticizes Trump Administration for Failures to Indian Country in Congressional Response to State of Indian Nations (Feb. 10, 2020), https://haaland.house.gov/media/press-releases/haaland-doesn-t-hold-back-criticizes-trump-administration-failures-indian

[12] Id.

[13] Not Invisible Act of 2019, H.R. 2438, 116th Cong. (2019).

[14] U.S. Congress, Actions taken on H.R. 2438, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/2438/all-actions?overview=closed&KWICView=false (last visited Mar. 24, 2020).

[15] Savanna’s Act, H.R. 2733, 116th Cong. (2019).

[16] Press Release, U.S. Representative Greg Stanton, Stanton asks FBI Direction to Improve Tribal Representation on Task Force for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (Feb. 6, 2020), https://stanton.house.gov/media/press-releases/stanton-asks-fbi-director-improve-tribal-representation-task-force-missing-and.

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