Debra Utacia Krol, The Arizona Republic

Murdered and missing Native cases should be a higher priority, Stanton tells Garland

Arizona Rep. Greg Stanton admonished U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland for his lack of progress in addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and persons.

Stanton's words echoed a new report by the Government Accountability Office on the government's response to the large numbers of Native women, girls, boys and men who have gone missing or whose murder cases languish in cold case files over several decades. The report found that the Justice Department could be doing more to address the issue and to fulfill the directives of two recently passed bills.

“It does not appear that you have used your platform to help make this a top priority, nor has the Department of Justice really moved the needle on this issue since your confirmation,” Stanton, D-Ariz., told Garland during a meeting of the House Committee on the Judiciary in October.

Stanton has been pushing agencies to take a stronger role in solving cases or determining accurate numbers of missing people in his two congressional terms.

Garland, who was confirmed as attorney general in March, acknowledged that the Justice Department has not expanded or considered expanding the FBI's Indian Country program, which works serious cases on tribal lands. The program has about 150 special agents to investigate crimes like murder, rape, burglary or arson on the nation's 326 reservations, some of which like the Navajo Nation, are the size of small states.

Stanton also talked about the government's response to cases like Gabby Petito's, whose disappearance and death received national attention and the focus of federal law enforcement, while similar cases in Indian Country are virtually neglected. The disparity has become a source of great frustration in tribal communities.

Despite recent efforts to better determine the numbers of missing women and persons in Indian Country, nobody really knows for sure how many there are. Savannah's Act, passed in 2019, directed the Justice Department to "review, revise, and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing or murdered Native Americans."

The Interior Department reported in April that about 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native missing persons have been entered into the National Crime Information Center, and approximately 2,700 cases of murder and nonnegligent homicide offenses have been reported to the Federal Government’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

Other federal agencies step up efforts

While the Justice Department's response has been static, other agencies have instituted or expanded programs to get a better handle on the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and persons.

In April, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the formation of a new Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services to oversee and direct interagency operations in the work of solving cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the U.S.

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, was the principal sponsor of the Not Invisible Act as a representative from New Mexico. The legislation, which passed unanimously in October 2020, mandated the creation of an interagency commission that would improve coordination between tribal, state and federal law enforcement agencies to investigate cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people.

"Any time a person is assaulted, kidnapped or goes missing, my heart breaks." Haaland said in a statement emailed to The Arizona Republic. "I want justice for all of these cases and believe that everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities."

Haaland said her agency is expanding collaborative efforts and partnerships with other agencies and stakeholders "to ensure that we hold perpetrators accountable, keep American Indian and Alaska Native communities safe, and provide closure for families."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs also has brought on staff to oversee investigations and collaborate with other government law enforcement agencies to ensure accurate data collection and better community outreach. Two new cold case offices were opened in Oklahoma and Washington.

In 2019, the Arizona Legislature approved the formation of a task force to determine the scope of the issue. The task force sought to create standardized tracking and collection of cases, develop effective means to share results and to educate the community.

GAO: 'Full extent of the problem is unknown'

The Government Accountability Office released a report on Nov. 1 that examined the government's progress in tackling the MMIWP crisis. The report said both the Justice and Interior departments could be doing more to address the issue. Still, the GAO wrote, "the agencies have missed some of the requirements' deadlines. For example, they have not yet set up a joint commission to explore the issue."

The office also said federal officials and tribes have been concerned about intergovernmental cooperation across jurisdictions, which have long confounded efforts to investigate or prosecute cases.

Most of the office's recommendations were directed to the Justice Department, such as creating plans to analyze data related to missing or murder cases, and to develop plans to implement the requirements of Savannah's Act and the Not Invisible Act that haven't yet been met.

Arizona state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, thanked Stanton and other members of Congress for speaking up on the issue. She said the government should reauthorize the Native American provisions of the Violence Against Women Act so tribes can prosecute non-Indians who commit acts of domestic violence against female tribal members on reservations.

"Native American families haven't been getting attention from the federal government," said Jermaine, an Ojibwe descendent. "It's only fair to demand equity from the Department of Justice."