How The Federal Government Hopes To Understand And Evaluate The Extent Of The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Crisis

August 10, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Last Wednesday, Aug. 4, the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Interior (DOI) together announced that they are seeking nominations for the non-federal seats on a Joint Commission on reducing violent crimes like murder, rape, and kidnapping against American Indians and Alaska Natives. This step is part of a broader implementation of the Not Invisible Act of 2019.

The violence experienced by Indigenous Peoples in general — and women, in particular — is not a recent phenomenon but it has been gaining attention and traction lately. Just a few months ago, President Joe Biden declared May 5, 2021, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, calling attention to the “disproportionately high number of missing or murdered Indigenous people,” and acknowledging the collective “failure to allocate the necessary resources and muster the necessary commitment to addressing and preventing this ongoing tragedy.”

In April, earlier this year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) established a new Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) to coordinate and direct funding in intra-governmental and cross-agency efforts to solve Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) cases. The MMU will work with Tribal, BIA, and FBI Investigators closely, to “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,” as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold that office, said at the time.

Last month, we covered the efforts to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and how that may empower Indigenous communities to better investigate and prosecute violent crimes committed against Native women. In today’s piece, we take a look at two other key pieces of legislation that have been enacted recently to help stall this crisis — the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act.

What The Data Says

Per some estimates, over eight in 10 Native Peoples are likely to experience sexual violence or assault during their lifetime. Native women and girls are also more likely to be trafficked than other segments of the population. Over four in five Native women report having experienced some form of violence during their lifetime. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for Native women aged 1–44, homicide was the sixth leading cause of death in 2018. For Native men, it was the third leading cause. In some tribal areas, the murder rate of Indigenous women is 10 times higher than the national average. Other estimates say that one in every three Native women is raped during their lifetime.

The DOI says that a lack of funding and resources means that MMIP cases often go unsolved, with it being difficult to re-examine evidence, find new witnesses, or further investigate suspects.

The Not Invisible Act

The Not Invisible Act was sponsored by then-congressperson Haaland and was passed unanimously by Congress in 2020. It requires the DOI to boost coordination across the government to mobilize resources in an effort to address the MMIP epidemic. Though the resources, grants, and programs existed before the Act was passed, the efforts to combat MMIP were without central leadership — a role that the DOI now plays.

The Commission, as detailed in the Act, is intended to serve in an advisory role and will be made up of at least 27 federal and non-federal members who run the gamut from law enforcement representatives and Indigenous-led organizations to healthcare and mental health experts who specialize in working with Native survivors of trafficking and sexual assault. The Commission will also include Native American survivors of human trafficking and family members of MMIP.

The Act requires the Commission to develop policy recommendations on how to best identify, report, and respond to epidemic violent crimes being committed against Native Americans and on Tribal land. As part of its duties, the council will seek out evidence and testimonies from hearings to base its recommendations on.

Savanna’s Act

Another bill, Savanna’s Act, was passed and signed into law at the same time as the Not Invisible Act. It is named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old who was eight months pregnant when she disappeared in 2017. She was eventually found murdered and butchered by a neighbor, who had cut her unborn baby out and stolen it.

Savanna’s Act requires the DOJ to review, revise, and create uniform law enforcement and justice standards on how to respond to violent crimes against Native American women. Crucially, it also requires federal agencies to collect and routinely make public statistics on the MMIP problem. The DOJ did not release any data around Native peoples until just over two decades ago. Enhancing data collection and reporting is expected to help experts craft evidence-based and effective measures to combat this problem.

Under this, the DOJ will train appropriate law enforcement agencies on how to use federal missing persons databases to record Tribal figures. Authorities will also be running a public awareness campaign on how to capitalize on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

With the start of the process of putting the Not Invisible Act Commission together, the plight of Indigenous communities is being put under the spotlight once more. In announcing the opening of nominations, both Secretary Haaland and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland highlighted the importance of allowing Native leaders and communities to lead the way.

“Incorporating Indigenous knowledge, Tribal consultation and a commission that reflects members who know first-hand the needs of their people will be critical as we address this epidemic in Native American and Alaska Native communities,” said Secretary Haaland.

Attorney General Garland added, “The membership of this joint commission must represent a diverse range of expertise, experience and perspectives, and we will consult with Tribal leaders who know best what their communities need to make them safer.”

The public can submit nominations for the non-federal positions on the Commission here.