Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Thursday announced the creation of a new Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services, which will investigate missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
The unit builds on Operation Lady Justice, a task force established in 2019 to resolve unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and aims to increase collaboration across federal agencies.
Haaland’s action essentially staffs up and puts real power behind the MMU created back in 2019. The unit will now be led by special agents who will provide day-to-day supervision of people working in the field with tribes and other governmental agencies. Haaland is also adding new positions to the unit, including program analysts to collect and make sense of data they receive, program specialists to coordinate administrative responsibilities, and victim specialists to work with families of victims of violence.
“It’s elevating stature of leadership and decision-making, interagency and cross-government coordination, and adding new folks,” Haaland spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said of the secretary’s latest action.
The initiative is years ― if not decades ― overdue.
The National Crime Information Center’s missing persons database contains 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Natives, and roughly 2,700 cases of murder and non-negligent homicide have been reported to the federal Uniform Crime Reporting program.
“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,” Haaland said Thursday in a release. “The new MMU unit 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.”
The problem is particularly acute for Native women.
About 84% of Native women experience violence in their lifetimes, and 56% experience sexual violence, according to the National Institute of Justice. Murder is the third leading cause of death of Indigenous women between the ages of 10 and 24.
More than 330 Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been murdered since 2010 in 71 U.S. cities, according to a 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute. The number swells to at least 506 if earlier missing persons are tallied, with the oldest cold case dating back to 1943 — still, that figure is surely a gross undercount due to limited data collection by law enforcement.
An estimated 95% of those cases received no national media coverage.
“It is a shame that previous administrations couldn’t do what Deb Haaland has done here in just two weeks,” Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute and co-author of three reports highlighting data collection issues around the crisis, told HuffPost in an email.
“We are lucky to have an Indigenous woman who truly understands the missing and murdered crisis in Indian Country taking immediate action to protect the lives of Native peoples,” Echo-Hawk said.
Jen Bendery contributed reporting.