Trump administration faulted for efforts to address 'epidemic' of missing and murdered in Indian Country

February 10, 2020
In The News

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Trump administration plans to spend more money on the crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans amid complaints that it isn't doing enough to address what is widely considered an epidemic of lost loved ones.

In releasing its budget proposal for the coming fiscal year on Monday, the Department of the Interior announced a $3 million investment in Operation Lady Justice, the new task force into missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, especially women and girls. The money, assuming it's approved by Congress, will go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“I am thankful that the FY 2021 budget provides support for the Operation Lady Justice and BIA law enforcement to meet head-on the factors that contribute to and exacerbate the nation’s crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans," Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, the Trump administration official with the most responsibilities in Indian Country, said in a news release.

On a conference call with reporters, senior officials said the department's funding request reflects the administration's commitment to fulfilling its trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations and their citizens. In November, during Native American Heritage Month and with Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt at his side, President Donald Trump signed an executive order establishing the missing and murdered task force.

"The President and the Secretary are committed to furthering self-determination and sovereignty for American Indians and Alaska Natives," said Scott Cameron, who serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget at Interior.

But just a couple of hours earlier, President Fawn Sharp of the National Congress of American Indians said the task force alone wasn't enough. In delivering the State of Indian Nations, her first major address since winning election as president of the inter-tribal organization last October, she called on the U.S. government -- as a whole -- to take stronger steps to address an issue that lingered for generations.

"The missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic," Sharp said to applause, "is ravaging so many of our communities and families."

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) said the task force incorporated some of the ideas she and other key members of Congress have advanced through bipartisan legislation, such as the H.R.2438, the Not Invisible Act. But she criticized the Trump administration for only assigning federal officials to the new group.

"I have concerns, because the task force does not include the voices of survivors or tribal leaders," Haaland said at George Washington University, where the State of Indian Nations was delivered. "It lacks concrete transparency and consultation requirements."

Haaland also noted that up until the budget announcement, the only concrete resources the Trump administration committed to missing and murdered Native Americans was $1.5 million to hire 11 "coordinators" in 11 states. As for the task force itself, government officials have said they weren't getting any new funds.

"There hasn't been any special resources for this task force," Katharine Sullivan, who serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice, said after the group's first meeting on January 29. "We're using existing resources for the work of this task force."

Other members of Congress also have questioned the Trump administration's commitment. During a hearing last week, Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Arizona) pressed the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to explain what the agency charged with solving crimes in Indian Country is doing about the countless number of people who go missing and murdered on tribal lands.

"It shouldn't take more women and girls dying to bring enough attention to the crisis," Stanton said in questioning whether the $1.5 million for coordinators was sufficient.

But even though FBI Director Christopher Wray has been assigned by President Trump to serve on the task force, he wasn't able to answer questions about resources, instead directing Stanton to the Department of Justice, where the FBI is housed.

"The nitty-gritty of the task force, I would refer you to the department,” Wray said at the oversight hearing before the House Committee on the Judiciary on February 5. “But I will tell you that we're going to make the best use of resources we do have."

Wray, who has held the top leadership position at the FBI for more than two years, added: "If Congress gives us more resources I can assure you we'll put them to good use."
As Congress debates how to the fund the federal government, the White House Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives plans to engage in outreach with Indian Country. The group's first listening session is taking place in D.C. on Wednesday afternoon, coinciding with NCAI's executive council winter session.

So far, the task force consists solely of federal officials. They include three tribal citizens who are political-level members of the president's team: Tara Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native woman to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs; R. Trent Shores, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation who serves as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma; and Jeannie Hovland, a citizen of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe who serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Native American Affairs and as the Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The executive order signed by Trump states that the Department of Justice "shall provide funding and administrative support" for the task force. The resources are to be used to help the officials carry out their work over the next two years, during which time two reports are to be delivered to the White House.

During the State of Indian Nations, Sharp called on Congress to fulfill its trust and treaty responsibilities by passing legislation to address missing and murdered Native Americans. In addition to the Not Invisible Act, which is the first bill to be introduced by the four tribal citizens who serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, a measure known as Savanna's Act [S.227 | H.R.2733] also takes initial steps to respond to the crisis.

A prior version of Savanna's Act, named in memory of Savanna Marie Greywind, a Spirit Lake Nation woman who went missing and was murdered in North Dakota in 2017, nearly became law during the last session of Congress. It passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support only for it to be scuttled at the last minute in the House by a male Republican who is no longer in office. The chamber was in the hands of the GOP at the time.

Efforts to renew the Violence Against Women Act also have been mired in partisan politics. The House of Representatives, now under Democratic control, included missing and murdered provisions in passing H.R.1585, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, nearly a year ago. The bill remains in limbo in the Senate, which is in Republican hands.

"They're sitting on someone's desk and not doing a thing," Haaland said in reference to the Republican majority leader of the Senate.

Haaland added: "Women have a right to be safe."