Despite his administration’s spotty record of supporting Native American issues, President Donald J. Trump ordered the creation of a task force to address the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) and girls.
Trump’s executive order was signed Nov. 26, 2019. The task force is called “Operation Lady Justice.”
In 2019, almost 5,600 Indigenous women were reported missing to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center.
In addition, the National Institute of Justice reports that 84% of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime.
Federal studies have also shown that on some reservations, women are killed at a rate more than 10 times the national average.
Further, advocates say the remarkably high numbers and sobering statistics likely represent undercounts in most official records and reports.
But the issue has begun to get more attention in recent months, partly due to the election of the first two Native American women to the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms – Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, and Rep. Sharice Davids, D-KS.
Trump’s task force is to run for two years and be overseen by Attorney General William Barr and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt – part of an “aggressive, government-wide strategy.”
The Department of Justice will collaborate with 11 heads of other federal departments to work with tribes and state and local agencies to address reports of MMIW.
“Operation Lady Justice” stakeholders are tasked with developing protocols to apply to new and unsolved cases and create a team to review cold cases.
At the signing, Trump called the scourge of violence facing Native American women and girls “sobering and heartbreaking.”
“With ‘Operation Lady Justice,’ we will bring new hope to Native American communities across the nation,” Trump said. “We will deliver justice for the victims, closure for the families, and safety to those in harm’s way.”
Immediate reaction from Indian Country was generally positive, but sometimes skeptical.
“The executive order gives hope to our tribal nations that justice is being sought and that there is a path for healing of our families, victims and survivors,” Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer said at the signing.
Abigail Echo-Hawk, chief research officer of the Seattle Indian Health Board, said the executive order is a step in the right direction but should focus not only on rural reservations, but urban cities, too.
“[Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls] is a nonpartisan issue because it is simply about the safety of women,” Echo-Hawk said in a statement. “We support our tribal partners and believe this federal task force has the potential to have an impact on reservations, but I urge that urban Indians have a voice within it.”
Skeptics pointed to the Trump administration’s past disrespectful rhetoric regarding Native Americans and his continued support of oil pipelines built near Native American lands.
“We’re cautiously hopeful,” Lauren French said.
French is the communications director for Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, one of the more outspoken and supportive members in Congress on Native American issues.
“Having the White House pay attention to the issue is wonderful,” French said. “It’s about the follow through. If they follow through in a meaningful way with respect, partnership and sovereignty, that would be a positive.”
More federal support
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate, on Dec. 19, 2019, passed two funding bills that address MMIW and violence against Native American women.
Highlights of the bills included:
• $502.5 million for Violence Against Women Act prevention and prosecution programs; funding for research relating to missing and murdered Indigenous girls; and violence against Indian women in remote communities that are underserved by law enforcement.
• $38 million for tribal assistance in state and local law enforcement.
• $30 million for tribal resources under the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, an initiative to increase the number of police officers and train them.
• $6.5 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to look at the issue of MMIW, including funding for work on cold cases, background checks, equipment needs, training and forensic training at the Indian Health Service.
• Better coordination, data collection and sharing among tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement to address and prevent violent crime.
• A 5% set-aside from the Victims of Crime Act fund for tribes to address services for victims of domestic and sexual violence.