Attorney General William Barr announced a $1.5 million plan to recover Native American people who have gone missing. He unveiled the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative Friday at a meeting with tribal and law enforcement officials at the Flathead Reservation in Montana.
Indigenous people — especially women — go missing and are murdered at alarming rates. Their cases are often met with little media coverage and slow action from law enforcement and investigators. In 2016, there were 5,712 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute. Only 116 of them were logged into the Department of Justice’s database. The Urban Indian Health Institute noted there have been 506 documented cases of American Indian women going missing from 2010-2016, but the numbers probably are an undercount because of limited resources and poor record-keeping, especially in cities. On some reservations, Native American women are 10 times more likely to go missing than the national average, according to the Indian Law Resource Center. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence.
The Trump administration faced backlash for erasure earlier this month when the White House issued a memo that declared November — which has been recognized by both Democrat and Republican presidents as Native American Heritage Month since 1990 — National American History and Founders Month without acknowledging Native American Heritage Month. President Donald Trump also signed orders in April to speed up the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was halted by the Obama administration amid protests by environmentalists and tribal groups whose land it now runs through.
Aside from marginalization, one of the main issues indigenous people face when it comes to action on missing and murdered tribe members is a disconnect between legal jurisdictions and sovereign tribes. Because tribes have their own sovereignty, the Bureau of Indian Affairs often begins the investigation before sometimes passing it off to the FBI. If there is ample evidence in severe cases like kidnapping, rape and murder, the Justice Department will also get involved in the prosecution.
The agreements on who can enforce in what jurisdiction often causes delays in the investigations, leading many of these cases unsolved. Additionally, the money will go toward the Justice Department doing an in-depth analysis of the issues in its data collection practices for these cases.
The bipartisan plan will fund 11 FBI coordinators to work on closing federal gaps in reporting and implement protocol for a more rapid response when a person is reported missing. Tribal and local authorities also will have access to FBI agents who specialize in missing persons and aid in evidence collection and social media analysis. In addition, federal prosecutors in Montana will be bringing public training to reservations to give people tips on finding missing loved ones.
There have been other bipartisan attempts at drawing attention to the epidemic of indigenous people going missing and being killed. This year, the Not Invisible Act was introduced in Congress to identify and combat violence against American Indians. A bipartisan group of senators also is pushing to pass Savanna’s Act, named for Savanna Greywind, a 22-year old pregnant Spirit Lake Tribe member who was murdered in 2017. The bill seeks to increase coordination between federal and tribal agencies and improve the protocols surrounding missing and murdered indigenous people. Savanna’s Act was passed in the House and has now moved to the Senate.
In Montana alone, Native American women make up 30% of the missing persons in the state, but only 3.3% of the population.
“American Indian and Alaska Native people suffer from unacceptable and disproportionately high levels of violence, which can have lasting impacts on families and communities,” Barr said in a statement.