Deb Haaland
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland listens to tribal leaders during a round-table discussion at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N.M.. (Susan Montoya Bryan/AP/Shutterstock)

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Creates New Unit To Investigate More Than 4,200 Missing and Possibly Murdered Native Americans

After making history as the first-ever Indigenous Cabinet official in U.S. history, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has announced plans to aid in an issue that has long plagued the country’s Indigenous population: the growing crisis of missing and murdered Native people — particularly women. 

Kiara Alfonseca of ABC News has reported that the U.S. Indigenous population has struggled for years to raise awareness of the issue. To help combat the problem, Haaland has created the Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to “provide more resources to investigate thousands of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Native Americans.”

“According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, homicide is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women aged 10 to 24,” Alfonseca reported. “Roughly 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native missing persons have been recorded across the U.S. by the National Crime Information Center, and about 2,700 cases of homicide have been reported to the Federal Government’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.”

Alfonseca further noted that “the Justice Department also found that Native women are victims of murder over 10 times the national average. But without assistance from non-tribal federal, state and local agencies, these cases have gone underfunded and uninvestigated.”

In a statement posted on the Department of Interior website, Haaland said “the new MMU will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe and provide closure for families.”

Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, spoke with Alfonseca on the issue, describing the ongoing need to ease the daily fear many Indigenous women are living in and to create systemic solutions that can help end the cycle of loss and death in Native communities.

“We see what representation looks like. You have an Indigenous woman leading as Secretary of the Interior with the authority and the ability to address some of the most pressing crises in Indian country,” Echo-Hawk said. “However, we have to recognize this as just the start … It’s not enough to search for them when they go missing or investigate the crimes when they’re murdered. We have to be at the point of prevention.”

According to Alfonseca, there are two major problems not yet addressed by Haaland’s announcement: one is many law enforcement systems don’t include a racial category for American Indian, Native American or Alaska Native. The other issue is law enforcement often categorizes Native peoples inaccurately. 

“The data that agencies do have is also often inaccessible to these communities who may not be able to financially afford to seek out this information,” she added. “Without proper records to hold leadership accountable, Indigenous communities won’t have the ability to advocate for themselves and law enforcement can’t combat a problem it doesn’t know exists.”

“Law enforcement was effectively hiding the disproportional impact in our communities by the non-collection of race and ethnicity,” Echo-Hawk told Alfonseca. “As a result of that, for many years, when our tribal leadership would go to them and push for resources and highlight this issue, they’d say, ‘but where’s your data?’ But we know the data isn’t there because they’re not collecting it. This is purposeful erasure.”

Still, the announcement is an important first step to help deal with the problem and Haaland remains hopeful the MMU will make a significant difference.

“Whether it’s a missing family member or a homicide investigation, these efforts will be all-hands-on-deck,” she said. “We are fully committed to assisting Tribal communities with these investigations, and the MMU will leverage every resource available to be a force-multiplier in preventing these cases from becoming cold case investigations.”

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