WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump authorized creation of an eight-member panel of federal officials Tuesday to coordinate the federal response to the problem of murdered and missing indigenous women.
Trump told tribal leaders gathered at the White House for the signing that the “Operation Lady Justice” task force is long overdue, calling statistics related to missing and murdered indigenous women “sobering and heartbreaking.”
While many advocates welcomed the effort, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., called it a “disappointing and shortsighted” answer to a problem that “has been overlooked for far too long.”
“It fails to include the voices of local and tribal law enforcement, tribal leadership, survivors, and victim’s families on the taskforce, and fails to make implementation mandatory, which contradicts the entire purpose of a plan like this,” Haaland said in a statement on the president’s plan.
She said the problem “needs meaningful policy initiatives to address it.”
The executive order signed Tuesday creates a task force of officials from the FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the departments of Interior, Justice, and Health and Human Services. They would be charged with working with tribal officials to develop procedures for better handling cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, improving coordination between police agencies and prosecutors, and improving and the sharing of data about such crimes, among other responsibilities.
The task force would have two years to deliver a final report to the president on its findings.
Abigail Echo-Hawk, co-author of the Urban Indian Health Institute Study on murdered and missing indigenous women and girls, called it “a non-partisan issue because it is simply about the safety of women.” She welcomed the task force, but said that for any plan to be successful, Native voices from all parts of the country will need to be part of the conservation.
“We support our tribal partners and believe this federal task force has the potential to have an impact on reservations, but I urge that urban Indians have a voice within it,” Echo-Hawk said in a written statement.
The executive order builds on an announcement by Attorney General William Barr during a visit Friday to the Flathead Reservation in Montana. Barr’s plan allocates $1.5 million to hire coordinators in 11 states, including Arizona, to develop protocols with local, state, and tribal law enforcement on how to handle cases of missing and murdered indigenous women.
A report by the National Institute of Justice based on 2010 data estimated that roughly four out of five American Indian and Alaska Native women have faced some form violence in their lifetime, while a 2008 study funded by the Justice Department said indigenous women in some counties face a murder rate 10 times the national average.
Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer, who stood next to Trump during the ceremony, welcomed the executive order.
“We feel that our prayers are being answered. And First Nations’ prayers are powerful,” Lizer said adding, “we look forward to seeing some improvement in Indian Country.”
Both Arizona and New Mexico have created their own task forces to study the issue.
Phefelia Nez, wife of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, is on the New Mexico task force that began meeting this fall. And Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey tweeted Tuesday that the state “is taking action to find solutions to the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. We stand with @realDonaldTrump in this important effort.”
However, the lack of good data has hampered previous efforts to combat the MMIW crisis. In September, a BIA law enforcement official testified before a House panel that his agency had failed to use a national crime database to track cases of missing and murdered indigenous women.
Both Barr’s plan and Trump’s executive order call for increased data sharing and standardization across police departments. Haaland, meanwhile, has sponsored a House bill that would allocate funding for data collection and cooperation between tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement.
Speaking at the White House Tuesday, Barr said the executive order is consistent with the president’s “commitment to focus on the issues of those who haven’t gotten the priority they deserved in the past.”
Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, praised the creation of the task force, citing the federal statistics to argue for increased federal action.
“Federal data indicates that 55 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner, the highest of any ethnic group in this country,” O’Halleran said in a statement released Tuesday.