In North America, there is an epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIW). In the United States alone, Native women face the highest rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, and murder—according to the National Institute of Justice, 1.5 million Native American women are survivors of violence. On some reservations, the Urban Indian Health Institute found, they are killed at a rate of up to 10 times the national average.
The extreme degree of violence Native women experience is caused by a confluence of circumstances stemming from colonization. On reservations, where tribes were forcibly relocated by the federal government after their ancestral lands were stolen, women and girls are isolated geographically and face imposed poverty. Federal law prohibits tribes from prosecuting non-Native perpetrators who commit crimes on tribal lands, yet 96 percent of Native women in the U.S. have experienced violence committed by a non-Native person. What’s more, jurisdictional confusion leads to poor communication among law enforcement agencies.
Native leaders across the continent have been sounding the alarm on this crisis for decades. Because our calls for justice have gotten louder, word of the grisly slayings of Native women began making international news, and after years of protest, congressional hearings, government tribunals, those demanding action on behalf of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls are finally being heard.
The latest to heed our call was, to our surprise, President Donald Trump.
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Last month, he signed an executive order that created “Operation Lady Justice,” a White House task force that promises to help Native communities confront the epidemic of violence against women. The law promises consultation with tribes on MMIW and establishes a multi-jurisdictional team to review cases. Educational outreach programs and grants to Native communities to help them address violence against women and the missing and murdered will also be established.
The executive order also puts in place a means of collecting and sharing pertinent data among law enforcement agencies, which is desperately needed. The number of Indigenous women who have gone missing in North America is unclear because of this shortcoming, but in 2018, the Urban Indian Health Institute found 506 unique cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 71 cities across 29 states. Fifty-six percent, or 280 cases, were murders.
As of 2016, 5,700 American Indian and Alaskan Native women disappeared in the United States, and only 116 of those cases were investigated by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
U.S. Attorney’s offices are responsible for prosecuting cases that fall under federal jurisdiction in Indian country after all tribal court remedies have been exhausted, and all those against non-Native people. Inadequate staffing and a lack of funding contribute to the epidemic. U.S. Attorney General William Barr was present at the signing of the executive order, and, four days prior, had announced an additional plan to address this issue alongside law enforcement and tribal leadership on the Flathead Reservation in Montana.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative is a $1.5 million investment by the DOJ that will bring coordinators to 11 U.S. Attorney’s offices to investigate and prosecute criminal cases in Indian Country. In addition, Barr and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt will oversee Operation Lady Justice.
While these developments sound like good news, I’m skeptical. I doubt the interest and intent of a president who regularly and vociferously uses the name of Pocahontas as a slur to take jabs at his political opponent when the Native girl was kidnapped, held hostage, and sexually assaulted by colonists. Trump’s misogynistic racial insults continue despite said usage being condemned by leaders, tribes, and national organizations like the National Congress of American Indians. Historically, the DOJ has bungled the MMIW crisis—and under the current leadership, I find it difficult to foresee a change.
Moreover, if the Trump administration is truly concerned with the plight of Native women, they would speak to the congressional members of his party about their obstruction of the passage of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which lapsed in February. It has been in the Senate’s hands since April, after the House of Representatives approved a version of VAWA that includes the recommendations of tribal leaders with bipartisan support.
The stall has caused much political strife, with Democrats claiming Republicans are holding up efforts as reelection looms for many. Last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a bill in the Senate with language that supports that of the one passed in the House; just after, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) told Politico that she disagreed with the bill, specifically with Feinstein on issues related to tribal criminal jurisdiction.
Ernst put forth her own version over a week later. Hers would embolden non-Native perpetrators by allowing them to have their cases removed from tribal court to federal court at any time, without an initial attempt at remedy from tribal courts, which is standard due process.
The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center opposes Ernst’s bill and said this version of VAWA would destabilize tribal justice systems, imposing undue burdens and restrictions on tribal courts “far beyond those imposed on federal and state courts.”
If passed, the legislation would reverse provisions installed in 2013 and eliminate an immediate opportunity for the law to impel our rights and support our safety. Law enforcement in our communities would further lose the ability to seek justice for Native women who come to them and report harassment or violence. If Trump were serious about ending the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women, he would reject Ernst’s proposal in favor of a version that includes strong tribal components, as Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) did during a meeting of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on December 11.
I’m especially skeptical of the intentions and outcome of President Trump’s executive order or the DOJ’s task force when considering the administration’s relationship to the fossil fuel industry and support of its environmentally destructive practices, which endanger the safety of Native women.
Within days of his inauguration, Trump signed executive orders to push through the Dakota Access and the Keystone XL pipelines, two projects vehemently opposed by the tribes upon whose lands they trespass. Pipelines are often routed through rural communities where law enforcement is scarce and inadequate for a sudden influx of thousands of strangers, and studies show that the existence of man camps, temporary housing where male transients who work in extractive industries live, are directly correlated to higher rates of violence and sex trafficking.
Right now, under his watch, the Keystone XL pipeline is set to be constructed near reservation communities in Montana and South Dakota. With the federal legal precedent uncorrected, tribal police are still rendered unable to protect their citizenry from non-Native predators by through prosecution, leaving county sheriffs and the FBI to serve as law enforcement to handle man camp cases or other instances of violence against Native women brought forth.
Tribes are intimately aware of the link between pipelines to violence against women and missing and murdered Native women and reject the double-speak they’re getting from some politicians on these issues. In October, Native representatives from Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Reservations in Montana pulled out of state Attorney General Tim Fox’s pre-exist Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force after he filed to intervene in a lawsuit to support the Trump administration and TC Energy in their effort to construct the Keystone XL pipeline. (Fox’s task force was established in June, to little effect.)
The Native vote has proven to be influential in key congressional races, and our power at the ballot box is being courted more than ever in the 2020 election season. We’re happy to finally have our voices heard, having experienced a long history of deceit and lies from settlers and the government alike. But Native people in some states weren’t allowed to vote until the 1960s, and suppression of the Native vote is still underway.
At this moment—after so much violence and discrimination—frankly, we are impervious to bullshit.
I’d love to believe that these initiatives purporting to address violence against Native women are grounded in legitimate concern, but we must look at the totality of the president’s words and actions. His ongoing disrespect has included insulting Native peoples at events meant to honor us. Federal law under his administration disregards tribal leadership and law enforcement’s abilities to handle cases involving non-Natives, who are the most likely to commit violence against Native women. As he vows to protect us, members of his party introduce bills that would explicitly reverse our gains.
These simultaneous, conflicting messages keep Native women’s lives in limbo, and the administration’s failure to address how they intersect exhibits a limited understanding of our struggles.
Native women and girls are not a political football to be used for the press to offset the damage caused by the fossil fuel industry to our lands and bodies. Executive orders don’t offer a blank check to freely degrade our ancestor, a Native woman, for the sake of securing votes at rallies where the fires of white nationalist hate and rage are stoked by his followers.
Operation Lady Justice is set to run for two years. As a former tribal judge and experienced administrator, I know that’s likely only enough time to see the true scope of the epidemic and won’t be enough to lead to substantive change. A task force or executive order are bandaids, and not enough to tackle systemic ongoing genocide against this land’s first peoples.
For the sake of our survival, Native communities deserve better. We all do.