Indianz.Com Video: Trump Administration: 'Violence is not the answer' #MMIW #GeorgeFloyd

Native women confront missing and murdered task force over Trump's role in crisis

The Trump administration's efforts to address the crisis of the missing and murdered in Indian Country are being undermined by the president himself, Native women asserted as outrage over police violence continues to sweep the nation.

During a listening session marred yet again by technical and logistical difficulties, Native women on Tuesday wondered Operation Lady Justice isn't looking into the reasons why so many of their sisters disappear. They said Donald Trump's hasty approval of pipelines through tribal territory will contribute to higher rates of violence by bringing in outsiders to their communities.

"Are you examining the issue of resource extraction?" asked Kristin Welch, a community organizer for Menikanaehkem, a Native women-led initiative in Wisconsin.

Keystone XL Pipeline construction activity can be seen in the background as 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 near the Montana border with Canada on May 5, 2020. Photo courtesy Indigenous Environmental Network

Welch rattled off a list of infrastructure projects that have been approved during the Trump era, some by the president's own actions. Construction and operation of pipelines, including activities occurring amid the COVID-19 pandemic, bring in large numbers of non-Indians who remain out of reach of tribal authority due to gaps in law and policy at the local, state and national levels.

"Cases of violence against Indigenous women are increased by 70 percent because of man camps," Welch asserted during the virtual teleconference, highlighting a problem that Native women say hasn't been considered during reviews of large-scale infrastructure projects.

None of the federal officials on the call directly responded to the question of resource extraction, which has been raised repeatedly ever since the Trump administration restarted the listening sessions last week. Native women have instead been directed -- more than once -- to read the executive order establishing the Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, which does not offer any room for criticism of the president.

Native women who have asked about the work of the Operation Lady Justice have been directed, more than once, to read the executive order establishing the Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. A comment attributed to Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney was posted during a listening session on June 2, 2020.

Amid the doubts, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, who at one point went missing from the 90-minute call due to the technical issues, felt compelled at the end of the session to address the unrest that has led to protests nationwide. She attempted to link outrage over the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota to violence in Native communities.

"Many of us have family members who are victims of domestic violence," said Sweeney, who was nominated for her political position at the Department of the Interior by Trump. "Others have been murdered."

Sweeney characterized the George Floyd protests as "riots," even though events outside of the White House on Monday evening were escalated not by participants but by military personnel so that Trump could take a photo at a nearby church. She said the unrest shows that "violence is not the answer" amid condemnation of the president's actions by political and clergy leaders.

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"I'm hearing reports of our men and women who are being called up to to defend our communities and that there are Native organizations impacted by this violence," Sweeney said.

Members of the urban Indian community in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed on May 25, have taken a proactive stance in protecting Indian-owned businesses and institutions as anger has swept the streets of a city known for its Indian activism. But they have expressed unwavering solidarity for the protests, noting that police violence affects American Indians and Alaska Native at the highest rates in the nation.

“The Minneapolis Police Department is the cause of all these actions,” Frank Paro, a citizen of the Grand Portage Chippewa Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who chairs the board of the national American Indian Movement, said at a press conference last week. “They murdered that young man, just like they have murdered a lot of us, people of color from the Twin Cities area.”

Through the protests, police officers and first responders failed to protect the Indian community from harm. A fire late last week burned out the building of MIGIZI, causing major damage to the sacred space that supports Native youth in the Twin Cities,

In spite of the turmoil, urban Indian leaders are supporting the movement toward greater accountability in law enforcement. Their are vowing to rebuild MIGIZI, an effort that has raised more than $68,000 in just three days.

"I just want to say from within the last 72 hours, what we’ve experienced here, my family and I, from total chaos and destruction, to yesterday of our building burning when I came at 5:30am and the state troopers in line, to when we prayed and healed from the burning and then today, we have had hundreds of hundreds of people helping us clean out and take out the things that survived, which is a miracle," Kelly Drummer, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who serves as president of MIGIZI, said on social media on Saturday. "The sage was completely dry and safe and some of our sacred baskets that we couldn’t grab as well. The outpour is just amazing. I just can’t believe it.

"My feelings from yesterday to today is just complete hope," Drummer added "That’s all I can say, its hope."

Another sign of a major disconnect within the Trump administration is Operation Lady Justice's refusal to examine another reason why Native women experience high rates of violence. The United States does not recognize tribal authority over most crimes committed by non-Indians, even though non-Indians are responsible for the majority of more serious offenses, according to the government's own data.

Instead, Native women who have asked the Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives whether the negative U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe will be addressed have been told by officials that such an issue is "beyond the scope" of the federal initiative.

"Violence is not the answer," one Native woman advocate told Indianz.Com after the listening session concluded on Tuesday, "but neither is cheating tribes."

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe restricts tribal sovereignty but was deemed "beyond the scope" of Operation Lady Justice in a May 27, 2020, comment attributed to Marcia Good, the executive director of the Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The 2013 version of the Violence Against Women Act addressed Oliphant in a limited manner by recognizing tribal jurisdiction over certain crimes committed by non-Indian domestic partners. But the law does not cover sexual assaults, trafficking and other serious offenses that affect even some of the youngest and most vulnerable in tribal communities.

Monte Fronk, a citizen of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians, brought an intensely personal perspective to the listening session by sharing the story of his teenage daughter who went missing and was a victim of trafficking in Minnesota. Though his family member was safely recovered and is now in her early 20s, he called on the task force to examine the trauma experienced by victims.

"As a Native father who has been in public safety for over 32 years, who has a daughter who was missing, but was found alive, which I know is a rarity," Mills said on the call, "maybe I could be a resource, possibly, in that way, having lived through a situation like that."

Fronk, who works as the emergency management coordinator for his tribe, said law enforcement agencies do not treat missing teenage girls as a priority. But as he was offering to lend his expertise to the task force, the government contractor running the Operation Lady Justice sessions silenced him.

"The program that we're using will automatically mute the line after the three-minute mark," said Sweeney, who herself got disconnected during the session, according to a another federal official on the call.

Later on in the session, Roger Smith, a council member from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, also got automatically silenced as he called on Operation Lady Justice to address gaps in jurisdiction. He too has been personally impacted by the crisis of the missing and murdered in Indian Country.

"I have nearly 20 years in law enforcement," said Smith, who was at the White House last November when Trump signed the executive order establishing the task force. "I also sit on the Minnesota governor's task force on MMIW."

"I look at Fond du Lac as [having] good relationships with the different state agencies," Smith said. "But through COVID, it really shines the light that we still need some work to do."

"There are some counties in Minnesota that do not cooperate with tribal law enforcement," he continued. "It makes policing difficult."

Smith was the only elected tribal leader who was able to voice comments during the entire session. At the beginning of the call, the audio went blank but federal officials kept talking, unaware that no one could hear their remarks.

Once people were able to reconnect, they found the audio extremely choppy. Participants were then instructed to use their phones to dial in and listen. The audio eventually improved -- about halfway through the 90-minute mark.

"Good use of $240k!" one Native woman advocate told Indianz.Com, in reference to a federal contract awarded to Saxman One, LLC, earlier this year 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.

'Unbelievable," added the advocate, who was silenced during the first listening session on May 27 and was unable to offer any comments due to technical difficulties.

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. The firm has at least one more logistical task on its hands -- the fourth and final Operation Lady Justice listening session on Wednesday afternoon.

Aware of the repeated problems with the calls, Saxman One on Wednesday morning via email announced "Important changes Operation Lady Justice Listening Session." All participants must use their phone lines to listen to the final teleconference despite spotty cellular coverage in many parts of Indian Country. Several Native women have cited lack of phone service as a hindrance to addressing the crisis of the missing and murdered.

According to Trump's executive order, Operation Lady Justice is supposed to deliver an initial report about its efforts in November, around the time of the 2020 presidential election. As part of the process, the task force intends to hold at least one in-person session in Montana in July.

The task force is also accepting written comments through None of the federal officials have indicated whether there is a deadline for submissions.

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