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Indianz.Com Audio: Secretary Deb Haaland – Missing and Murdered American Indian and Alaska Native Awareness Day – May 4, 2021
‘Everyone deserves to feel safe’: Biden administration focuses on MMIW crisis
Wednesday, May 5, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Biden administration is taking additional steps to address the crisis of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives in hopes of putting the focus back on survivors, families and tribal nations.

During a media call on Tuesday afternoon, Secretary Deb Haaland stressed the importance of elevating the voices of those that often go unheard. She said she will be observing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day on May 5 in her office at the Department of the Interior.

“Like many, I will display a red shawl in my office on an empty chair — red in honor of the movement that rang the alarm on this issue and the empty chair to symbolize those who have gone missing,” Haaland said from the nation’s capital.

“It’s an unfortunate tradition for those of us who honor this day, but this year more than any, I feel we are ready to solve this crisis,” said Haaland, who is the first Native person to serve in a presidential cabinet.

For the Biden administration, one step in solving the problem is a new commission being established through the Not Invisible Act. When she served in Congress, Haaland led introduction of the bill, which was the first to be sponsored by all four tribally-enrolled citizens in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But unlike a similar effort that began during the Trump administration, when only federal officials were involved, the commission will consist of tribal leaders, people affected by violence, such as human trafficking, as well as relatives of those who have gone missing or have been murdered.

“Everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities, but the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples crisis is one that Native communities have faced since the dawn of colonization for too long,” Haaland told members of the media. “For too long, this issue has been swept under the rug with a lack of urgency, attention and funding.”

“The rates of missing persons cases in the American Indian and Alaska Native communities are disproportionate, alarming and unacceptable,” said Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, an Indian nation located in New Mexico.

As Haaland mentioned, lack of funding has been an issue historically, with the federal government’s failure to meet its trust and treaty obligations in Indian Country. The situation will be slowly changing with more resources — from $1 million to $6 million — to help tackle the crisis.

“We have an increase in budget on this issue,” Haaland said of the administration’s fiscal year 2022 request. “So that will absolutely help us a lot.”

The additional resources will help the Bureau of Indian Affairs take greater control of an effort that began during the last year of the Trump presidency. A total of seven “cold case” offices were announced in 2020 as part an initiative known as Operation Lady Justice.

Despite the use of the term “office,” a senior Biden administration official said on Tuesday that some of the stations existed in name only. According to Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland, government employees in some instances lacked a physical place where they could actually work on missing and murdered incidents in tribal communities.

“Last year, there was a cold case unit stood up that had fewer than 10 officers, spread across the country in seven locations,” said Newland, who served as chair of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan prior to joining the new administration.

“We didn’t have any support staff, for those officers and many of them were not supervisory officers and in some instances didn’t even have physical workspaces,” Newland continued.

The Trump-era “offices” will now be rolled into the new Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) that Haaland announced last month. The new funding resources will be used to hire additional officers, provide them with support staff and bring on a unit leader who will be in charge of the overall effort.

“With the Missing and Murdered Unit being established, we have funding now to more than double the number of officers and support staff in that unit and we are going to have a unit leader that can coordinate work across the country,” said Newland, who has been nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

During the presidential campaign, Biden called attention to what he said was an . He echoed those sentiments with a proclamation in honor of May 5 as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.

“Our failure to allocate the necessary resources and muster the necessary commitment to addressing and preventing this ongoing tragedy not only demeans the dignity and humanity of each person who goes missing or is murdered, it sends pain and shockwaves across our Tribal communities,” Biden said from the White House. “Our treaty and trust responsibilities to Tribal Nations require our best efforts, and our concern for the well-being of these fellow citizens require us to act with urgency. To this end, our Government must strengthen its support and collaboration with Tribal communities.”

Operation Lady Justice was launched in November 2019 through a presidential executive order that remains in effect. The order established the Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives to look into cases of missing and murdered relatives.

The task force, which was composed solely of government officials, planned to hold listening sessions and tribal consultations in 2020 in order to prepare an initial report on the criss. The COVID-19 pandemic forced all of that work online, an effort that was hindered by numerous technical difficulties that cut off the voices of family members and survivors.

Indianz.Com Video: Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) #MMIW #NotInvisible

But Native women and advocates also complained about the task force’s limited nature. A repeated theme throughout the virtual sessions centered on the lack of accountability toward the energy industry, whose projects have contributed to higher rates of violence on and near tribal communities.

Newland, in his first appearance before the National Congress of American Indians after joining the Biden team, quickly acknowledged how man camps have been raised as an issue by tribal leaders and Native women. On Tuesday, he said the new administration will continue to prioritize the voices of those most affected by the crisis.

“A family should expect to receive more direct engagement and more timely communication from BIA law enforcement when when we’re working to solve one of these cases,” Newland said.

Then-Rep. Deb Haaland, center, and other advocates wear red in honor of missing and murdered Indigenous women during an event at the U.S. Capitol on September 11, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

With the changes at the national level, Operation Lady Justice will reconvene for its first meeting of 2021. On Friday, grassroots organizations will share their experiences with federal officials.

May 5 was chosen as a national awareness day in merry of Hanna Harris, a young citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who went missing from her reservation in Montana in 2013 and was later found murdered. Her family has hosted yearly walks in honor of her legacy.

“Momentum is on our side and we are not turning back,” said Secretary Haaland on Tuesday. “In Congress, I led the Not Invisible Act to garner attention for this issue.”

“Now, in partnership with the Justice Department, and along with extensive engagement with tribes and other stakeholders, Interior is marshaling or resources to implement these laws, to finally address the crisis of violence against indigenous people,” she said.

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