Debra Uticia Krol, The Arizona Republic

Biden orders federal agencies to focus attention on murdered and missing Indigenous people

President Joe Biden on Monday directed four cabinet-level agencies to work with Native tribes to address the epidemic of missing or murdered Indigenous women and persons, and to improve public safety and justice for Native Americans nationwide.

Biden signed an executive order at the start of a two-day White House Tribal Nations Summit, calling for the Departments of Justice, Interior, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to develop a coordinated plan to deal not only with specific law enforcement issues but to provide more support for tribal law enforcement agencies to develop tribal-centric responses to crimes.

The order also calls for the Interior and Justice departments to develop a strategy to analyze crime and missing persons data in both reservation and urban Indian communities within 240 days. Biden also ordered the Health and Human Services Department to create plans to prevent violence against Indigenous people and to provide more support services for survivors of violence.

All four cabinet secretaries and Jill Biden were present during the signing ceremony.

The president noted that the new executive order would build on the tribal provisions of the Violence Against Women Act, which gave tribes the opportunity to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against intimate partners on tribal lands.

The announcement came about two weeks after Rep. Greg Stanton admonished U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland over the issue during a congressional hearing.

“It’s a national shame that the federal government continues to fail to meet its trust obligations to Tribal communities — a failure felt most acutely by the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls," Stanton said in a statement emailed to The Arizona Republic.

Biden also announced several other Indian Country initiatives, including a 20-year moratorium on oil and gas leases within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

“Today’s actions by the president demonstrate a welcome and dramatic change in attitude towards the Indigenous people of this country,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., in a statement.

“After four years of being ignored and witnessing sacred sites being desecrated, it is reassuring to see President Biden moving forward with the promises to Indian Country he campaigned on by acting to protect the sacred site of Chaco Canyon, as well as prioritizing the safety of Indigenous women and girls," Grijalva said. "Today’s executive actions are a promising foundation to build a new standard for dialogue between tribal nations and the federal government.”

Rep. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz., a former police officer, said he has introduced at least two pieces of legislation to support survivors of domestic violence.

"This is a national crisis," said O'Halleran, whose district includes 12 tribes. "Today, marking the halfway point of Native American Heritage Month, I am proud to see President Biden’s actions to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women announced.”

Over the years, Native communities have endured thousands of cases in which women, girls, men or boys go missing, sometimes forever. Advocates say accurate statistics of how many cases sit unidentified or unsolved in law enforcement files have yet to be developed.

The National Congress of American Indians noted in a 2013 policy paper that 61% of all Indigenous women have been sexually assaulted and are at least two times more likely to be raped or assaulted than other groups.

Organizations that deal with the crisis on a daily basis also applauded the order.

"StrongHearts Native Helpline supports the Executive Order on Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People signed by President Biden," said StrongHearts' director, Lori Jump, in a statement.

The organization provides support to Native women seeking help to escape domestic violence, including referrals to local agencies providing Indigenous culturally-sensitive services to victims of domestic violence and sexual violence, peer support and advocacy, and information on legal options. In its first two years of operation, the helpline took more than 5,000 calls for help from Indian Country women and families.

"This executive order is an important acknowledgment of the tireless work of so many of our ancestors and relatives in the field to bring this issue to attention and lead to action," said Jump, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly said he supports the effort to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

"The federal government should live up to its commitment to tribal communities and this is an important step in addressing this challenge," he said.

Stanton said he was grateful the administration was turning its attention more fully to the crisis, "but the reality is that it will take more than better communication between federal and tribal governments to deliver justice. It will require a significant and sustained investment of resources to respond to these cases in a meaningful and time-sensitive way.”