Angeline Cheek, an organizer with the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux frontline organization Kokipansi, takes part in a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Awareness Day action at a Keystone XL Pipeline construction site near the Montana border with Canada on May 5, 2020. Photo courtesy Indigenous Environmental Network

'Am I cutting out again?': Missing and murdered task force off to shaky start amid COVID-19 challenges

The Trump administration's missing and murdered task force got off to a rocky start in the age of COVID-19, leaving a number of Native women silenced amid technical and logistical challenges.

Despite the presence of a high-profile speaker -- Kellyanne Conway, a prominent senior aide to President Donald Trump -- tribal leaders and advocates had a difficult time being heard by Operation Lady Justice on Wednesday. Even some federal officials were stuck on mute during the task force's first listening session in months.

"Oh well, I guess they are just starting out again," one frustrated Native women advocate told Indianz.Com after she was unable to voice her comments despite repeated attempts at getting through.

indianz · Presidential Task Force on Missing & Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Listening Session
Indianz.Com Audio: Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Listening Session - May 27, 2020

"So I'll be nice today," she added, declining to cast blame for the bungled session.

During the 90-minute call, in fact, only one tribal leader was able to offer remarks, and only after some extra effort. Chief Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Tribe said she was worried that the task force wasn't doing enough to address Indian Country's concerns as it prepares to deliver a report to Trump later this year.

"There are no tribal leaders on the task force," Malerba pointed out, voicing a concern that was raised at the very first meeting two months ago, before the pandemic shut down in-person operations.

"How will you incorporate tribal leader feedback and how will Indian Country be briefed on what your reports will be?" Malerba asked. "Will we have an opportunity to provide feedback once you have recommendations that are going to be going to the president?"

"It's going to be really important to have that feedback loop," Malerba said. She added: "There should be a continuing dialog with tribal leaders and tribal nations."

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Some 14 seconds of silence went by before Katharine Sullivan, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice, was able to respond. She serves as a co-chair of the task force, which was established by executive order last November.

"Am I cutting out again?" asked Sullivan, who two months ago promised that tribal leaders would be included in the task through an advisory or working group. But none of that materialized on Wednesday's session.

"Can you repeat the question to me please?" Sullivan said. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, the other co-chair, had to summarize what Chief Malerba had relayed to the task force.

"The logistical issues that surround the task force have obviously adjusted a little bit because of COVID-19 and our inability to travel into Indian Country," Sullivan explained.

"I really appreciate the question about whether or not we are able to make sure that Indian Country, particularly very rural communities, have access to the kind of technology that you need to participate in these sessions," said Sullivan, who did not explain whether or not there will be a tribal leader advisory or working group.

"We do have a report due to the president November 2020," Sullivan added. "We will receive as much input as we possibly can but I think it's fair to say that nothing is set in stone until we have done all the consultation and listening sessions that we have promised to do."

"COVID put a wrench in the timing a little," Sullivan acknowledged. "But it's a postponement. It's not cancelled."

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Before the pandemic, the task force held six meetings, presentations and listening sessions. None took place in Indian Country, as those outreach efforts were supposed to have started in March, before tribes started closing their borders, prohibiting travel and taking other steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The task force has not yet rescheduled most of the Indian Country sessions. Notably, two of them were connected to events that have been postponed as a result of the pandemic.

The only in-person meeting on the schedule is a July 7 session in Montana. Otherwise, the task force is holding a total of four virtual listening sessions, the first of which took place on Wednesday and was intended to hear from tribes leaders and advocates in the eastern, southeastern and northeastern regions of the U.S.

For the three remaining teleconferences, the task force is grouping multiple regions on the same calls, instead of the individualized sessions that had been planned before the pandemic. A call on Friday is supposed to cover the Southern Plains, Southwest, Western and Rocky Mountain regions.

The June 2 call is focused on the Midwest and the Great Plains. Tribes and advocates from the Pacific, Northwestern and Alaska regions are supposed to dial in on June 3.

Previously, in-person meetings had been scheduled in nearly every one of these regions.

"When the president was running and talking about the forgotten men and forgotten women, and forgotten child for that matter, that absolutely includes missing the missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives," Conway from the White House said on the call on Wednesday.

"We're all too happy to give this more visibility and more leadership than it's had in the past, but we have a long way to go because one missing or murdered America Alaska Native is far too many," said Conway, who serves as counselor to President Trump.

For help with the teleconferences, the Department of Justice is relying on an Alaska Native corporate entity. A $240,000 contract was awarded to Saxman One, LLC, on February 25 to provide "logistical support" for the Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, according to documents on GovTribe.Com, a government contracting site.

Since November 2019, when the task force was announced, Saxman One has been awarded more than $3.1 million in contract awards by the Department of Justice, according to GovTribe.Com. A contract worth up to $20 million, plus another worth $3 million, were awarded in 2019, according to the site.

Saxman One is owned by Cape Fox Corporation, an Alaska Native village corporation based in southeast Alaska.

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