White House Tribal Nations Conference in 2016. Photo credit: U.S. HUD Flickr

Justice Department, Interior Secretary forward Biden’s ‘nation-to-nation relationship’ by bolstering public safety initiatives for Native Americans

After generations of neglect, the Biden Administration takes corrective actions “rooted in honesty and modeled on diplomacy” to support Native Americans’ building safer Tribal nations in their recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The annual White House Tribal Nations Summit took place virtually this year; yet and still, the intensity of the dialogue underscored tribal nations’ work to protect its peoples and restore tribal homelands. “We have heard from tribal leaders about their biggest challenges and have responded by improving access to federal resources and ensuring that our investments are responsive to the needs of their communities and the people they serve,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Amy L. Solomon of the Office of Justice Programs.

Two months after the missing persons case of Gabby Petito struck a nerve in the Native community regarding the gross disparities between white missing persons and tribal members, the U.S. Department of the Interior Indian Affairs announced the launch of its new website dedicated to solving missing and murdered cases in Indian Country.

“The Missing and Murdered Indigenous peoples crisis has plagued Indian Country for too long, with cases often going unsolved and unaddressed,” said Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs. “This new website represents a new tool in the effort to keep communities safe and provide closure for families.”

The digital platform keeps updated information on all open and unresolved cases involving indigenous persons in investigations within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services (BIA-OJS) Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU). It also allows the ability for users to easily submit tips and other important information regarding cases.

“Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades. Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland when she announced in April of this year that the MMU would be formed. The unit provides cross-departmental and inter-agency resources and leadership prioritizing missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The website and adjacent resources offer a much needed focus on Natives whose risks of experiencing violence, murder, or going missing, make up a significant portion of the missing and murdered cases. Plus, more than four in five of American Indian and Alaska Native adults have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The unfortunate case of Gabby Petito, a young, white blogger who went missing in Wyoming while traveling with her boyfriend, reignited an ugly truth in Native communities—the crisis of too many missing Native women and girls going under-investigated or completely ignored.

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White House Tribal Nations Conference in 2016. The conference turned into a summit in 2021 under the Biden Administration. Photo credit: U.S. HUD Flickr

While an intense search and round-the-clock nationwide news covered law enforcement efforts to find Petitio, local Native activists pointed out that hundreds of missing Native women and girls occurred in the same area, but never received as much as a mention. “I think there’s this practice of discounting indigenous bodies when it comes to folks who go missing or murdered,” Jolene Holgate, a director for the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, told New Mexico television station KRQE during the search for Petito.  

To contrast previous negligence, the “all hands-on deck” approach Sec’y Haaland explained, commits to agencies assisting Tribal communities. Furthering what the Biden Administration calls a “nation-to-nation relationship,” at the recent White House Tribal Nations Summit, the Justice Department announced $73 million in grants to help crime victims, improve public safety in American and Alaskan Native Nations. The funds are designed to help enhance tribal justice systems and strengthen law enforcement, improve the handling of child abuse cases, combat domestic violence and support tribal youth programs

Because Indian tribes are sovereign nations with existing treaties between them and the U.S., the federal government must negotiate and consult “nation-to-nation” on all affairs impacting tribal nations. This also includes the ways in which Tribes are supported in establishing law enforcement and court systems. However, over the years, the dearth in financial, political and logistical support makes Native communities the most vulnerable in a range of issues from drug abuse to public protection. 

“We acknowledge that our country has historically failed to meet the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous people with the urgency and the resources it demands,” remarked Attorney General Merrick B. Garland at the summit.  “We also recognize that solving this crisis requires that we work in partnership with one another.”

On November 15, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order working to improve public safety and criminal justice in Native nations, and to address the epidemic of missing or murdered Indigenous peoples. Through the Office of Justice Programs, the Department of Justice will award 137 grants to 85 American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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