Indianz.Com Video: Operation Lady Justice: #MMIW #MMIP Task Force

Presidential task force tackles 'epidemic' of missing and murdered in Indian Country

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Despite committing no new federal funds for the initiative, the Trump administration is moving forward with efforts to address the crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans.

Key officials from the Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services convened the Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives for the first time here on Wednesday. They announced plans to engage in outreach with Indian Country, starting with an inter-tribal meeting in the nation's capital next month.

"The somber reality is that the epidemic of missing and murdered Native Americans continues to cast a necessary spotlight on the dire need for action," Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney told reporters on a conference call after the group's inaugural meeting.

Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native woman to serve in her position at the Department of the Interior, said the task force will begin a "consultation tour across the country" as part of its charge to improve the way the federal government responds to cases of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, especially women and girls. A full schedule is expected to be released in time for the first listening session on February 12 in Washington, D.C.

"We're coming together to listen, learn and provide recommended solutions," said Katharine Sullivan, who serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice.

Indianz.Com Audio: Trump administration launches Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives

To assist in the effort, Marcia Good, an employee at the Department of Justice, has been designated as the executive director of the task force. She has worked on Indian issues at the Office of Tribal Justice and has helped prosecute cases in Indian Country.

"She has been a lifelong advocate and career civil servant, dedicated to improving public safety in Indian Country," said R. Trent Shores, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation who serves as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma and is another member of the federal body.

Besides Sweeney, Sullivan and Shores, the task force consists of four additional officials. Two of them are tribal citizens -- Charles Addington, who hails from the Cherokee Nation and heads up law enforcement at the Bureau of Indian Affairs; and Jeannie Hovland, who comes from the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Native American Affairs and as the Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The final two representatives are Terry Wade, who was recently named as the assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division at the Federal Bureau of Investigation national headquarters in D.C., and Laura Rogers, who is the temporary director of the Office on Violence Against Women at DOJ.

But as the seven members coordinate among their respective agencies in the coming months, they won't be getting new resources to carry out their mandate. Sullivan would not offer a dollar amount for the budget when asked on the conference call.

"There hasn't been any special resources for this task force," Sullivan confirmed. "We're using existing resources for the work of this task force."

According to the executive order signed by President Donald Trump last November, the Department of Justice "shall provide funding and administrative support" for the task force. The resources are to be used to help the officials carry out their work over the next two years, during which time two reports are to be delivered to the White House.

“President Trump is committed to addressing systemic challenges in Indian Country, and this task force will develop and implement an aggressive, government-wide strategy to combat the crisis of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives,” said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt of what has been dubbed Operation Lady Justice. “By working together and listening to impacted citizens and tribal communities, we intend to tackle these complex issues.”

“The disappearance and death of American Indian and Alaska Native people, particularly women and girls, is an especially tragic chapter in a long story of marginalization and trauma suffered by Native people,” added Attorney General William Barr, who recently traveled to Montana and Alaska as part of his focus on public safety in Indian Country. “We are committed to addressing this challenge, to reducing the violence and protecting the vulnerable from exploitation 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.”

Native women have been pushing for action on missing and murdered loved ones at the tribal, local, state and federal level for years. A lack of data -- up until recently, the number of reported cases of missing Native women wasn't even widely known -- and limited commitments from government agencies have contributed to what advocates have said is a lack of visibility for the crisis.

The picture has started to turn around with the addition of a growing number of Native women and supporters in state legislatures. Since the start of 2019, several states, including Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota and Washington, have enacted laws to start to account for the missing and murdered in Native communities and in urban settings.

The rise of the first two Native women to the U.S. Congress also has helped draw attention to the crisis. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), along with Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), made history with the Not Invisible Act of 2019 (H.R.2438), which was the first bill to be introduced to be introduced by all four tribal citizens who serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But national level legislation has stalled due to party-line disagreements in Washington. Native women welcomed the passage of a bill to renew the Violence Against Women Act in the Democratic-controlled House last year, only for Republicans in the U.S. Senate to unveil a rival version that they say sets back their work by decades.

Native women wear red at the National Congress of American Indians 76th annual convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 22, 2019, to call attention to the need to pass the Violence Against Women Act. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The Trump administration has not offered much support on the legislative side either, having failed to take a stand on the pro-tribal VAWA bill and offering little in terms of substance on other Indian Country public safety measures. Up until the task force, the only major action from the White House was a proclamation recognizing missing and murdered Indigenous women, one that was issued close to midnight on a Friday last year, drawing little attention as a result.

The launch of the task force's outreach coincides with the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in D.C. The inter-tribal gathering takes place February 10-13 at the Capitol Hilton, a hotel that's not far from the White House.

President Fawn Sharp of the Quinault Nation, who won election as NCAI's leader in October, will deliver her first State of Indian Nations on February 10. The address, in which she will outline what the organization sees as Indian Country's successes, challenges and priorities, is being hosted at the Jack Morton Auditorium at George Washington University on that morning. Addressing the crisis of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, as well as expanding tribal jurisdiction through VAWA and other legislative vehicles, have been among NCAI's goals in recent years.

Assistant Secretary Sweeney, who has addressed NCAI several times since joining the Trump administration, is scheduled to speak at the winter session on Tuesday, according to a draft agenda. Senior government officials, along with key members of Congress, are also on the agenda.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: Taking a stand against human trafficking (January 27, 2020)
Body of missing teen from Crow Tribe found in Montana (January 20, 2020)
'We'll fight the good fight': Lawmakers tackle Indigenous issues at state capitol (January 15, 2020)
'When they do turn for help, nobody believes them': Native women hold vigil in honor of Ashlea Aldrich (January 14, 2020)
Forum for Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives set for Arizona (January 10, 2020)
'This is one of the most heartbreaking issues': Young Native woman's death tied to domestic violence (January 10, 2020)
Death of woman on Omaha Reservation under investigation (January 8, 2020)
‘We need each other to heal:’ Native Americans help Native Americans overcome domestic violence (December 26, 2019)
Supporting state and federal efforts to address MMIW (December 11, 2019)
Trump creates panel on issue of missing, murdered indigenous women (December 2, 2019)
Tribal leaders share statements about White House signing ceremony (November 27, 2019)
Operation Lady Justice features artwork by D.G. Smalling of Choctaw Nation (November 26, 2019)
President Trump promises action on missing and murdered in Indian Country (November 26, 2019)
'Political football': Protections for Native women caught up in partisan stalemate (November 21, 2019)
RECAP: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs #MMIW meeting and Native veterans hearing (November 21, 2019)
Senate committee takes up #MMIW bills amid doubts about protections for Native women (November 19, 2019)
Rep. Tom Cole: Celebrating Native American Heritage Month (November 4, 2019)
Rep. Tom Cole: Protecting Native women and children (October 31, 2019)
'We’re going to bring them home': Rally for the missing and the murdered (October 15, 2019)
YES! Magazine: Pipelines can endanger the lives of Native women (October 7, 2019)
'Does the White House support VAWA?': Trump officials won't say (September 24, 2019)
RECAP: Sovereignty and Native Women's Safety at US Capitol (September 17, 2019)
House panel questions officials on efforts to help Native women (September 13, 2019)
House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples convenes hearing on #MMIW crisis (September 11, 2019)
Appeals court decision affirms tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians (August 29, 2019)
RECAP: Trump administration unprepared for hearing on #MMIW and tribal jurisdiction bills (June 19, 2019)
Witness list for Senate hearing on Indian Country safety legislation (June 18, 2019)
Key lawmakers renew efforts to protect Native women from violence (June 13, 2019)
Protections for Native women in limbo amid party divisions in Congress (May 22, 2019)
Bill John Baker: The Not Invisible Act is vital to the safety of Native women (May 8, 2019)
AUDIO/VIDEO: Democrats call for action to address #MMIW crisis (May 7, 2019)
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: Bipartisan bill protects Native women and girls (May 7, 2019)
YES! Magazine: Indigenous communities take action for missing and murdered (April 22, 2019)
Leader of Jicarilla Apache Nation stepped down after remarks about 'loose women' (April 12, 2019)
Navajo Nation in mourning after body of 4-year-old missing girl is found (April 4, 2019)
House adds more Indian Country provisions to Violence Against Women Act (April 3, 2019)
'Not one more': Native woman laid to rest after going missing in urban area (April 1, 2019)
House moves closer to passage of Violence Against Women Act (April 1, 2019)
'What she say, it be law': Tribes protected their women before being stripped of sovereignty (March 25, 2019)
National Museum of the American Indian hosts 'Safety for Our Sisters' symposium (March 21, 2019)
'An abomination': Republicans try to strip tribal jurisdiction from Violence Against Women Act (March 18, 2019)
Advocates call for funding, data to find missing, murdered Native women (March 18, 2019)
Native women leaders lined up for hearing on missing and murdered sisters (March 12, 2019)
'It could be me': Native American teen teaches self-defense to keep indigenous kids safe (March 11, 2019)
House subcommittee schedules hearing on missing and murdered indigenous women (March 8, 2019)
Native Sun News Today: Pipeline opponents and advocates warn of dangers of man camps (March 8, 2019)
Cronkite News: Attention finally being paid to missing and murdered sisters (March 6, 2019)
MSU News: Powwow dedicated to missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (March 4, 2019)
Bill John Baker: Cherokee Nation celebrates the women who make us strong (March 4, 2019)
'Shameful': Congress fails to take action on missing and murdered Indigenous women (January 10, 2019)
Another tribe asserts authority over non-Indians as VAWA remains in limbo (December 7, 2018)
High Country News: It's business as usual for crime on tribal lands (November 29, 2018)
Trump administration argues against tribal sovereignty in Supreme Court case (November 27, 2018)
Another tribe asserts authority over non-Indians as VAWA remains in limbo (November 2, 2018)
Trending in News
More Headlines