Native-led groups raise missing persons banner
By Talli Nauman Native Sun News Today Health & Environment Editor
RAPID CITY – On April 17, Native-led groups pooled resources to hold an event they called Winyan Oyate Kihetakiyo, or Bringing the Woman Nation, to raise awareness here about issues surrounding missing and murdered indigenous relatives.
“The event is being held to bring awareness to the crisis that our Lakota and tribal nations are facing, they said in an invitation. It is “to address the issues related to our young relatives that go missing.”
Red Generation, Wolves Den, and Where All Women Are Honored were among organizers, who stressed, “This is a crisis that has been silent for too long.”
Gathering at the bandshell in Memorial Park, participants heard speakers talk about culturally appropriate ways of preventing or healing from loss of loved ones. They walked through the park to display signs calling for justice.
Sex trafficking in South Dakota was one of their concerns. The South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations have arrested suspects in sex trafficking sting ops for the past several years.
“During this time of difficulties, our Native nations and Indigenous nations are facing, it is time to wake up the spirit,” organizers urged. “This is to help our community become stronger and more aware.”
The event took place two weeks after U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the formation of a new Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. Its purpose is to provide leadership and direction for cross-departmental and interagency work involving missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
“The MMU will help put the full weight of the federal government into investigating these cases and marshal law enforcement resources across federal agencies and throughout Indian country,” Interior announced.
Haaland recognized “Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades.” She said that “far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated.”
The first indigenous Secretary of State promised that the new 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 cases of approximately 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native missing persons from across the United State are registered in the National Crime Information Center, according to Interior. Approximately 2,700 cases of murder and non-negligent homicide offenses are on record in the federal government’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Many other cases are lost in bureaucratic shuffle, according to grassroots advocates for survivors.
A task force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives — Operation Lady Justice — formed in 2019 to pursue these unresolved cases. The MMU builds on task force work by designating new leadership and support positions, including a Unit Chief responsible for stakeholder collaboration, continued policy development, and overall performance of the unit.
The Interior Department is designating new positions with existing federal funding to support the investigative needs of the MMU, including the collection and analysis of performance data and coordination of services with the families of victims.
Investigations remain unsolved often due to a lack of investigative resources available to identify new information from witness testimony, re-examine fresh or retained material evidence, and review ongoing activities of suspects, Interior notes. The MMU, in addition to reviewing unsolved cases, will immediately begin working with tribal, BIA and FBI investigators on active missing and murdered investigations, it promises.
The MMU is supposed to enable the department to expand its collaborative efforts with other agencies. That could enhance the Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, NamUs. I could help develop strategic partnerships with additional stakeholders such as the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Units, the FBI Forensic Laboratory, the U.S. Marshals Missing Child Unit, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“Whether it’s a missing family member or a homicide investigation, these efforts will be all hands-on deck,” Secretary Haaland pledged in the April 1 announcement. “We are fully committed to assisting tribal communities with these investigations,” she said. “The MMU will leverage every resource available to be a force-multiplier in preventing these cases from becoming cold case investigations.”
The administrative effort responds to Congress’ September enactment of Savanna’s Act. Its wording explains why Indigenous communities need additional protections, findin:
(1) On some reservations, Indian women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average.
(2) American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.5 times as likely to experience violent crimes—and at least two times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes—compared to all other races.
(3) More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women, or 84.3 percent, have experienced violence in their lifetime.
(4) More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native men, or 81.6 percent, have experienced violence in their lifetime.
(5) Homicide is the third leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women between 10 and 24 years of age and the fifth leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women between 25 and 34 years of age.
(6) Investigation into cases of missing and murdered Indian women is made difficult for tribal law enforcement agencies due to a lack of resources, such as necessary training, equipment, or funding; a lack of interagency cooperation; and a lack of appropriate laws in place.
(7) The complicated jurisdictional scheme that exists in Indian country has a significant negative impact on the ability to provide public safety to Indian communities; has been increasingly exploited by criminals; and requires a high degree of commitment and cooperation among tribal, federal, and state law enforcement officials.
Rapid City’s community-based volunteer Red Ribbon Skirt Society of the Black Hills opened a hotline this month for family members who need help connecting with justice and healing services. Call the liaison office at (605) 415-5320.
(Contact Talli Nauman at email@example.com)
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