President Donald Trump's creation of a task force to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) was applauded by tribal leaders, including Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin, who attended the signing ceremony at the White House on November 26.
"It's a historical day to know that our missing and murdered women have a place and a remembrance, and that we care about them and their families," Melanie said in the Oval Office — after introducing herself in Ojibwemowin. "Miigwech," she concluded.
Also in attendance were Fond du Lac Chairman Kevin DuPuis, Fond du Lac Council Member Roger Smith, Chairman Alvin "A.J." Not Afraid of Montana’s Crow Tribe, and Vice President Myron Lizer of the Navajo Nation.
The executive order establishes Operation Lady Justice — an inter-agency task force charged with developing an aggressive, government-wide strategy to address the crisis of missing and murdered women and girls in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
Nicole Anderson, the Band’s Commissioner of Health and Human Services, is on Minnesota's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force — the first of its kind in the nation.
She said the Executive Order has brought recognition to the issue nationwide. "Many people did not even know it was an issue," said Nicole. "But now missing and murdered Indigenous women are getting national attention."
Other states have been contacting the Minnesota task force to see how they can implement something similar.
Melanie received her invitation on the day before the event, and since she was in the Twin Cities already, she decided to jump on a plane. "When opportunity knocks, I want to be there to answer on behalf of the Mille Lacs Band," she said.
Upon arrival in Washington, she was surprised to learn that only a small number of leaders had been invited, and that it would be in the Oval Office with the President in attendance. "I didn't think he would actually be there signing the Executive Order," she said.
Although Trump has faced criticism from tribal leaders, Melanie’s visit to the White House was about the importance of the issue the Executive Order addresses.
"As Chief Executive, I took an oath to protect the general welfare of the Mille Lacs Band," Melanie said. "With that oath comes a solemn duty to advocate for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe to the best of my ability in a government-to-government manner, and in a non-partisan way whenever I have the opportunity to do so. In these situations, I focus on the office the person holds and advancing the goals of the Band."
Melanie said she was honored and humbled to represent the Band, especially given the importance of the issue nationally and locally.
Here at Mille Lacs, acts of violence increased when Mille Lacs County withdrew from a joint powers agreement and stopped prosecuting cases brought by the Tribal Police Department. That decision opened to door to violence and drug trafficking as criminal elements saw Mille Lacs as a "police-free zone."
"All these things are linked," said Melanie. "There is a higher incidence of these hideous acts when there is no law enforcement and people feel there are no consequences."
The Band's lobbying efforts with state and federal officials brought federal law enforcement help to the reservation and eventually led to a new agreement.
"Any time I can be involved in representing the Band in a positive way to bring awareness of our issues, to discuss policies, or to coordinate between tribal and state and federal governments, I want to make sure we are at the table to help come up with solutions," Melanie added. "That's what I'm charged with in Title 4 of our Band Statutes."
The Executive Order will establish multi-jurisdictional teams made up of representatives from Tribal and Federal law enforcement to review unsolved cases. In addition, this new task force will promote greater cooperation among federal, local, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies in responding to cases. To better equip communities to respond to the crisis, the task force will undertake efforts to increase public awareness of the issue.
The Executive Order also directs the Department of Justice to issue grants to help improve safety in Native American com- munities.
"We will leverage every resource we have to bring safety to our tribal communities, and we will not waver in this mission," Trump said.
By the numbers
The state and federal attention to the issue stems from the fact that Indigenous women are murdered and reported missing at higher rates than any other group.
Indigenous women also suffer from higher rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance use, poverty, trafficking, and prostitution — all of which increase the likelihood that a woman will be murdered or reported missing.
The numbers are revealing:
• Four out of five American Indian women are affected by violence today (Coalition to Stop Violence, 2019).
• American Indian women face murder rates 10 times the national average (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018).
• Homicide is the third leading cause of death among American Indian women age 10 to 24 and the fifth lead- ing cause of death for American Indian women between the ages of 25 and 34 (Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention Homicide, 2019).
• Minnesota ranked number 9 in the top 10 states with the highest numbers of MMIW cases (Urban Indian Health Institute, 2018).
• 5,712 cases of missing or murdered women and girls were reported in 2016, but only 116 were logged into the Department of Justice database (Missing and Murdered Indigenous report, 2017).
According to Nicole, these statistics show a need for better sharing of information and collaboration between tribal, state, and county agencies. Tribal police departments do not always have full access to databases that would be helpful in MMIW cases. Improvements in data collection are also needed. For example, racial misclassification means Indigenous women are underrepresented in crime statistics.
System failures are another problem, Nicole said. Victims will present themselves at hospital emergency rooms, advocacy centers, treatment centers, or clinics for a variety of reasons, but direct care employees do not have the training to identify victims or the knowledge to connect women with help. As a result, these women go right back to abusive environments.
The Minnesota Task Force and Trump’s Executive Order will help with these problems, but more needs to be done.
U.S. Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee have advanced two bills to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s crisis — Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act.
The first is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was abducted and killed last year in Fargo, North Dakota. It passed the U.S. Senate unanimously in December 2018 but was held up in the House by Rep. Bob Goodlatte. The Not Invisible Act has addressed concerns raised by Goodlatte, and the bills have a good chance of passing this year.
Senator Smith and Senator Amy Klobuchar have also pressed for immediate action to pass the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and reduce the high rate of violence against Indigenous women, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked action on VAWA.