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Assistant Sec. Of Indian Affairs: Tribes Are "Not Alone" In Combating Violence Against Native People

Department of the Interior Photographer Tami Heilemann
Ivanka Trump at the opening of a MMIP cold case investigative office in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Across Indian Country, federal cold case task force offices are opening to investigate cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people. They're part of a multi-agency effort established by the Trump administration last year, called Operation Lady Justice. Two Bureau of Indian Affairs special agents will work out of a Billings, Montana based cold case task force office starting this week, serving tribal communities in our region.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney is part of the Operation Lady Justice task force. She joined Wyoming Public Radio's Savannah Maher to discuss the new cold case effort.

Savannah Maher: Assistant Secretary, I want to start by asking exactly what these cold case offices will do.

Tara Sweeney: I want to point out that under the Trump administration, tribal governments are not alone in fighting the epidemic of violence against American Indians and Alaska Native people. Some of the [cold case office] duties will involve gathering intelligence on active missing and murdered cases, reviewing and prioritizing those cases for assignment to investigative teams, identifying any outside resources that can add value to the investigative efforts and coordinating those resources with the teams that are overseeing these cases.

SM: Right, and the office that's opening here in our region in Billings will serve tribal communities in Wyoming and Montana, two states that already have their own task forces on this issue. Are there plans for collaboration?

TS: I really like the question that you asked because this issue is about collaboration. This issue is about partnership. It's about breaking down silos, looking at the best practices, looking at the multi-jurisdictional challenges and understanding that across the country, there are local advocacy groups who are extremely involved and have ideas. We welcome that opportunity to collaborate.

SM: I'm glad you bring up those multi-jurisdictional challenges, because when I talk with local stakeholders here on Wind River, very few of them say that what we need to solve this crisis is more federal resources. What they'd like to see is more local control, for the tribal criminal justice systems to have the ability to prosecute non-Native perpetrators. And right now, they can't do that in the majority of cases.

TS: So the fix to that specific issue is really a Congressional fix, and engagement would have to take place which the Congressional delegations. What you're raising is a concern that has been mirrored through many fora that we have engaged with throughout the life of this task force.

SM: Sure. I want to give you a chance to respond to some criticism of the task force. When the first cold case office was opened in Minnesota last month, the Lieutenant Governor of that state Peggy Flanagan, who's a citizen of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation, she called it a "photo op." And I can tell you that there are some local [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women] advocates here on Wind River that are also skeptical that this effort will change things.

TS: Well, I'm going to push back on that narrative. And it's important for folks to remember that action on this issue has not been taken before, and it was this administration that worked to create the Operation Lady Justice task force. We have been able to work to elevate this issue to the national stage where it rightfully belongs. So that people are talking about it, not just talking about it, but there is an avenue for our people to get engaged in this process. Because this is about empowerment, and this is about forgotten Americans. And as an Alaska Native woman, who like many people, knows family members that have either fallen victim to murder or are missing, anyone who is criticizing this type of effort is, in my opinion, a new depth of depravation. Because what we should be doing is coming together and unifying our communities for this cause.

SM: Well, another criticism that I've heard is just that the Trump administration has instituted other policies that advocates on this issue say contradict the goals of this task force. Policies like approving the construction of unwanted infrastructure projects through tribal land and near tribal land, like the Keystone XL pipeline. And policies like your office's recent effort to disestablish an entire reservation in Massachusetts. So, what would you say to those critics?

TS: I am here to raise awareness. I am here to advocate on behalf of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. As Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, and as a member of this task force, that is my job. And I will continue to raise this issue to the highest levels of this administration because it is extremely important to the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing of our people, and we need to take action on this epidemic and many other social ills that continue to plague our communities.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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