States Join Pilot to Investigate Cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People

A memorial for missing and murdered Indigenous women in Concho, Oklahoma.

A memorial for missing and murdered Indigenous women in Concho, Oklahoma. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)


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Federal, state, and tribal agencies will create guidelines for investigations into missing persons and murder cases where Native American or Alaska Native people are involved.

Oklahoma will be the first state to join a new federal pilot project designed to better coordinate investigations of cases involving missing or murdered Indigenous people. 

The “first of its kind pilot project” is part of a broader U.S. Department of Justice effort to reduce “the violent crime rates that seem to disproportionately impact Native American women and children,” said U.S. Attorney Trent Shores with the northern district of Oklahoma this week. The project was announced along with U.S. Attorney Brian Kuester of Oklahoma’s eastern district, as well as the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Cherokee Nation. 

“The first step in achieving justice for missing and murdered Native Americans was acknowledging the injustice of any historical indifference to or neglect of these tragic cases,” Shores said. “Now, it is time for action to tackle this crisis head-on.”

Led by the Justice Department, the Tribal Community Response Plan will require federal, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies to work in coordination to create “culturally appropriate guidelines when investigating emergent cases.” The guidelines will include instructions for law enforcement, victim services, community outreach, and public communications. The work starts in Oklahoma, and then be rolled out in five other states: Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Oregon.

Last year, the Justice Department stepped up its efforts to coordinate with U.S. Attorney’s offices on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative, allocating $1.5 million to hire coordinators in 11 states. Six of those states will be in the pilot. The other five are Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Washington.  

The pilot will be used to create guidelines for response plans that can then be used in states across the country. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said that the pilot will be an “important partnership” that “will help pool our focus and resources on these cases with immediate, coordinated and professional response plans.”

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill said he feels “these types of collaborations, in which our input is sought and utilized to craft culturally specific guidelines, are the best path forward” in addressing the crisis.

The exact number of missing and murdered Indigenous people isn’t well known, often due to failures in data collection and reporting. In 2016, the National Crime Information Center tracked 5,712 reports of missing Indigenous women and girls, but only 116 of those cases were logged into the Justice Department’s federal missing persons database. 

In some counties with reservations or a high concentration of tribal members, Indigenous women are found murdered at a rate ten times the national average. Murder is the third leading cause of death among Native American and Alaska Native women.

Several states have taken steps in recent years to address the crisis. States with large tribal communities, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington, established task forces specifically focused on missing or murdered women. They are expected to analyze data, investigate cold cases, and determine policies that can bolster local law enforcement’s ability to address missing persons cases.

At the federal level, the Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives held a series of virtual consultations with tribes across the country this summer. President Trump also signed two laws in October—Savannah’s Act, which directs federal law enforcement to create protocols for investigating these types of cases and the Not Invisible Act, which directs the DOJ and the Department of the Interior to establish a joint commission on violent crime within and against tribal communities. 

President-elect Biden has said his administration will continue to partner with tribes and improve data collection to better address the crisis. Law enforcement experts have repeatedly said that gaps in reporting and database errors exacerbate the crisis and make it harder for both state and local agencies to investigate cases.

On May 5, the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls, Biden said he would “take a comprehensive approach to protect the lives of indigenous women and girls—one that closes the data gap, supports tribes in building their own programs, expands tribal authority, grows coordination among law enforcement agencies, and expands access to culturally sensitive resources for victims and survivors.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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