The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the work of a federal panel trying to tackle a different crisis plaguing Indian Country.
“We’re continuing to meet to carry out the mission this task force was created for,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney said in a phone interview last week about Operation Lady Justice, a group created by President Donald Trump in November to address the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.
May 5 was proclaimed Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day by the president. Similar proclamations were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate by Rep. Deb Haaland and Sen. Tom Udall, both D-N.M.
The National Institute of Justice estimates 1.5 million Native American women have experienced violence, including many who are victims of sexual violence. On some reservations, federal studies have shown, women are killed at a rate more than 10 times the national average.
Sweeney said the task force’s work groups are working on ways to revive missing persons and murder cases.
“We’re continuing to work on literature for outreach,” she said. “We’re looking for training opportunities for law enforcement and victims groups.”
She said the task force is also gathering information that can be provided to victims and their families.
“We’re looking at best practices on how to communicate with families and the layers of jurisdictions and how they interact,” Sweeney said.
The pandemic has created challenges for the task force, including the way it works with tribal communities and governments.
“(The Bureau of Indian Affairs) has engaged with tribal governments on other issues in Indian Country not involving Operation Lady Justice,” she said. “They’ve mostly been about coronavirus relief efforts. We’ve done some virtual consulting, which we may also do with Operation Lady Justice. We’re having to look at our schedule and make adjustments.”
Interaction with regional and state task forces – including New Mexico’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force – has been at a minimum, Sweeney says.
“But we must work with them,” she said. “We can’t solve this crisis unless we work together.”
Udall called the crisis “appalling” when introducing his resolution last week.
He said in a news release that it “demands the attention of the federal government and our nation – especially now in light of reports of domestic violence increases caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”
Udall is calling for the Senate to pass the Violence Against Women Act, which includes provisions he sponsored that address the crisis and other issues.
Haaland – one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress – is also calling for support for bills that address the issue.
That includes the Not Invisible Act, which would establish a committee on violent crime made up of law enforcement, tribal leaders, federal agencies, service providers and survivors to make recommendations to the Interior and Justice departments. The bill also seeks to establish practices for law enforcement on combating the crisis, and trafficking of Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
“We’re living through tough times right now, but it’s not going to stop us from highlighting the need to address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls,” Haaland said in a news release.
Scott Turner: firstname.lastname@example.org