WASHINGTON ― Even a blind squirrel eventually finds a nut, right?
With about a dozen Native attendees by his side in the Oval Office, Trump signed an executive order launching “Operation Lady Justice,” which creates an interagency task force to address the country’s largely invisible crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Trump’s action comes a few days after Attorney General William Barr announced related Justice Department efforts, including a $1.5 million investment in hiring coordinators to work with U.S. attorneys’ offices in states where the crisis is more significant.
“It is my honor to sign an executive order ― we’re going to be doing it right now ― to address a tragedy facing Native American communities: the crisis of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, in particular women and children,” said Trump, reading from prepared remarks. “It’s a tremendous problem. It’s been going on for a long time. Many, many decades. Beyond bad.”
Trump said the effort will be led by Barr and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, and will include officials from tribal and federal law enforcement reviewing unsolved cases.
“We will leverage every resource we have to bring safety to our tribal communities and we will not waver in this mission,” he said. “This has never been done before.”
It’s a tremendous problem. It’s been going on for a long time. Many, many decades. Beyond bad.
President Donald Trump on missing and murdered Indigenous women
It’s not clear why Trump decided to do something about this or if there is significance to the timing of the administration’s actions. A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on either of those points.
Regardless, it’s a huge deal that the administration is taking action to address what’s quietly happening to Native women and girls.
At least 506 Native women and girls have gone missing or been killed in 71 U.S. cities, with 330 of those cases occurring since 2010, according to a November 2018 report by Urban Indian Health Institute. The institute says that 506 number is likely a gross undercount, too, because of the complete lack of data being collected by law enforcement agencies. A staggering 95% of these cases were never covered by the national media, and the circumstances surrounding many of the deaths and disappearances remain unknown.
Native women face unspeakable levels of violence. A Justice Department report found that 84% of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime, and in some tribal communities, Native women are murdered at 10 times the national average.
The executive order, which isn’t public yet, appears to be based on Savanna’s Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) earlier this year that boosts coordination and data collection among tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement in cases involving missing and murdered Native women. It may also draw from Not Invisible Act, a related bill that helps establish an overarching federal strategy to address Indigenous women going missing, being murdered or being forced into sex trafficking. Both bills were unanimously voted out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last week.
After Barr’s announcement about the Justice Department’s efforts last week, Murkowski told HuffPost in a statement on Friday that she’s thrilled by the administration’s attention to the issue and hopes it means both bills will get passed into law more quickly.
“I applaud the administration for this announcement and for making proactive, directed initiatives to improve the federal response to this epidemic,” the senator said. “I was glad to host Attorney General Barr and his team in Alaska to show him first-hand the role that the lack of public safety plays in this heartbreaking epidemic. The urgency and attention he has placed on this issue is truly critical.”
She added, “With the Senate Indian Affairs Committee advancing Savanna’s Act and Not Invisible Act this week, coupled with this announcement today, we are showing women across the nation, and those who love them, that we will not sit idly by as our sisters, our mothers, our neighbors, and our friends continue to go missing―that we are with them in this fight.”
One Senate Democratic aide told HuffPost it’s “promising” that the administration is doing something on missing and murdered Indigenous women but it remains to be seen if there will be follow-through.
“Needless to say, we’ve seen a lack of commitment from the White House up until now, and for years, they weren’t even supportive of Savanna’s Act – so this is all just pretty abrupt,” said the aide, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “We’re glad to see resources behind this, and will always be supportive of action on this issue, but we want to make sure there aren’t political or electoral concerns driving the effort — that won’t lead to results for Indian Country.”
Tuesday’s White House event attendees included Michelle Demmert, chief justice of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska Supreme Court, and Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians.
“We appreciate the thoughtful response by this administration to address the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women with new programs and increased funding,” Demmert said in a statement. “A multi-disciplinary task force that has both the Secretary of Interior and the Attorney General leading the effort will result in active solutions that takes into account available and needed resources, understand the jurisdictional complexity involved and provide the proper level of decision-making authority to effectuate meaningful change.”
This story has been updated with comment from a Senate Democratic aide.
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