Government steps up efforts to probe missing, murdered indigenous people

By Michael Kinney

Shawn Partridge has seen first-hand the devastating effect of violence against Native Americans. In her variety of different roles with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, it has been part of her job to help families that have had to deal with violence in any manner.

It’s an issue that has gone largely unreported for generations.

“Clearly this is not a new issue for tribes,” said Partridge, who is the acting secretary of community and human services for Muscogee (Creek) Nation. “This is something that goes back to colonization as far as violence against Native people being utilize as a tactic, a tool if you will, to colonize our people. This is high rates of violence being perpetrated against the indigenous people is nothing new.”

According to Partridge, the lack of focus on the safety and well-being of indigenous people across the United States has allowed people who have gone missing or even murdered to go under the radar or just swept under the rug. This has left thousands of families without any answers on what has happened to their loved ones and it seemed no one outside the tribes themselves wanted to know what happened and why.

But Partridge hopes she has started to see a change in the other direction.

Oklahoma announced this week it will become the first state to launch a pilot program aimed at investigating missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. The announcement was made by U.S. Attorneys Trent Shores and Brian Kuester at a press conference Nov. 23 in Tulsa.

Five other U.S. attorneys’ offices are slated to follow with the same program at later dates. According to Shores, lessons learned from the pilot project will be used to improve the draft guides for developing a Tribal Community Response Plan before they are used in states across the country.

“I am proud to partner with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Cherokee Nation to announce the first of its kind pilot project to develop and implement protocols and community action plans for missing and murdered indigenous people cases,” said Shores, who represents Oklahoma’s northern district. “The Department of Justice continues to prioritize public safety in Indian Country, especially when it comes to reducing the violent crime rates that seem to disproportionately impact Native American women and children.”

According to Attorney General William P. Barr, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Initiative coordinators in 11 U.S. Attorneys’ offices will develop protocols for a more coordinated law enforcement response to missing cases. The plan also calls for the deployment of the FBI’s most advanced response capabilities when needed, improved data collection and analysis, and training to support local response efforts.

“American Indian and Alaska Native people suffer from unacceptable and disproportionately high levels of violence, which can have lasting impacts on families and communities,” said Barr. “Native American women face particularly high rates of violence, with at least half suffering sexual or intimate-partner violence in their lifetime.

“Too many of these families have experienced the loss of loved ones who went missing or were murdered. This important initiative will further strengthen the federal, state, and tribal law enforcement response to these continuing problems.”

The MMIP Initiative will involve a coordinated effort by more than 50 U.S. Attorneys on NAIS, the FBI, the Office of Tribal Justice, with support from the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW).

The U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies developed draft guides for developing a Tribal Community Response Plan in conjunction with tribal leaders, law enforcement and tribal communities.

Each plan will be composed of guidelines addressing at least four different areas in response to MMIP cases, according to the U.S. attorneys. They include law enforcement, victim services, community outreach and media/public communications.

Shores said the project will focus on both missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, but in Oklahoma, it is likely to have greater impact on missing persons cases because murder and homicide cases have well-defined jurisdiction.

“Tribal Community Response Plans will unite people, agencies, and sovereigns committed to justice and liberty for all,” Kuester said. “Together we will identify and implement the best practices for responding to and investigating cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous people. I look forward to building upon the strong relationships the U.S. Attorney’s Office has with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Cherokee Nation and our law enforcement partners as we move forward together.”

The key to the MMIP, according to the U.S. attorneys, is being able to work in conjunction with the local tribes.

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill agrees.

“We are unquestionably at our strongest when partnering with agencies and tribes working toward our shared goal, and that is enhancing public safety and protection for those who need it most,” Hill said. “Unfortunately, we know all too well the challenges we face and the trends we must reverse regarding Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. We feel these types of collaborations, in which our input is sought and utilized to craft culturally specific guidelines, are the best path forward and we can’t wait to get started.”

There is no accurate count of how many Indigenous people have been murdered or gone missing throughout the nation over the years. Tribal leaders along with federal, state, local government and law enforcement officials are working to solve the cases and provide support to those impacted by the crimes, said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

“We are dedicated to delivering justice and to the FBI’s mission to protect all the people we serve,” he added. “We reaffirm our focus on allocating resources to serve Native American needs.”

Tribes such as the Muscogee (Creek) Nation have had their own internal groups working on the problem for years. But now having the resources and back of the federal government will be an added benefit to the work that has already been done.

“Because we have high rates of (domestic and sexual violence) that are perpetrated against our people, then it’s really not a surprise that our people can be at greater risk for going missing or being murdered,” Partridge said. “So the work that we’re doing already is basically homicide prevention. We’re trying to prevent our people from being murdered as a result of violent crime. We’re trying to prevent people from going missing.  This is not new for us. These are issues we have been working to address for many, many years.”

Michael Kinney Media

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