ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — Nearly 40 law enforcement officials, tribal leaders, social workers and survivors of violence have been named to a federal commission charged with helping improve how the government deals with a decades-long crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans and Alaska Natives, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced Thursday.
Watch Haaland’s remarks in the player above.
The committee’s creation means that for the first time, the voices guiding the Interior and Justice Departments in the effort will include those most affected by the outbreak, said Haaland, the first Native American to lead a department. ministerial.
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She said the panel includes members with diverse experiences and backgrounds, representing communities from Alaska and Washington to Arizona, Oklahoma and Michigan. It will make recommendations on how the government can better address a disproportionately high number of unsolved cases in which Native Americans and Alaska Natives have gone missing or been killed.
“It will take focused effort — and time — to untangle the many threads that contribute to the alarming rates of these cases,” Haaland said during a virtual event.
Some members of Congress have expressed concern that work to resolve the crisis, as required by law, is not on track. In the case of the appointment of the members of the commission, the federal civil servants are more than a year behind.
The Not Invisible Law, signed into law in October 2020, required the commission to be appointed by February 2021 and its findings to be made public last month.
Another law signed around the same time directed the United States Attorney General’s office to find ways to increase law enforcement cooperation, provide resources to tribes, and address the collection of data. Savanna’s Act is named after 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who disappeared while pregnant in 2017 before her body was found in a river in North Dakota.
US Sense. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who is facing a tough re-election campaign; Jon Tester of Montana; and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, deputy chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, expressed their concerns in a letter earlier this week.
“These two laws set out specific timelines and deadlines for implementation; however, it is unclear what arrangements have been made and it appears that almost all deadlines have been missed,” the lawmakers wrote.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Thursday that the commission’s appointment marks an important step that follows ongoing work by a separate steering committee to mobilize more federal resources to address the issue.
She also announced the creation of a new position within the US Attorney’s Executive Office that will be responsible for working with victims and families to ensure they have a voice while navigating the criminal justice system.
Federal officials also plugged in the work done by the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which now has 17 offices across the country that have at least one officer dedicated to resolving cases involving missing or killed Native Americans.
As for the 37-member commission, its mission includes tracking and reporting data on missing persons, homicides and human trafficking cases and increasing information sharing with tribal governments on investigations. on violent crimes and other prosecutions on Indian lands.
The commission is expected to hold hearings and collect testimony before making recommendations to the Interior and Justice Departments to improve interagency coordination and establish best practices for enforcing state, tribal and federal laws. The panel is also tasked with building resources for survivors and families of victims.
Meanwhile, some communities have already created their own response plans to address the problem. In New Mexico, officials unveiled the state’s plan on Thursday, outlining goals that include creating more support services for survivors and families, raising awareness about education and prevention and mobilizing resources for tribal justice systems.
Fawn Sharp, president of the tribal advocacy group National Congress of American Indians, said at Thursday’s virtual event that while funding for law enforcement in Indian Country has increased in recent years, it is far from meeting the needs.
She pointed to research showing that failure to provide funding undermines the ability to provide adequate public safety in tribal communities.
“Having the power to hold perpetrators accountable is an important first step, but tribal nations cannot sue to hold bad actors accountable without adequate and consistent funding for tribal justice systems,” she said.
Other advocates said they hoped the federal commission’s recommendations would cover the need for safe housing for victims of domestic violence and other social services and health care that could help prevent violence.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona.