This week, a federal cold case task force office opened in Billings to investigate unresolved cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous people [MMIP]. It’s one of seven established across Indian Country this summer, part of the Trump administration’s multi-agency initiative, called “Operation Lady Justice,” to combat violence against Native people.
The Billings office will be staffed by two Bureau of Indian Affairs special agents who will review active and cold cases in our region, and identify new investigative tools for resolving them. They will work primarily with Native communities in Wyoming and Montana.
Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney says the opening of these cold case task force offices comes after months of consultation with tribal leaders, community members, and advocates.
“We held roundtables everywhere from the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, to Rapid City, South Dakota and Bethel, Alaska,” Sweeney said in an interview with Wyoming Public Radio. “All of these efforts have led to the need to open these cold case offices across the country.”
Tribal leaders from across Wyoming and Montana have applauded the effort, including representatives from the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Business Councils.
But Lynnette Grey Bull, a prominent advocate for MMIP in our region, is skeptical. She said she and the groups she represents have not been consulted or included in the process.
“The right people who have worked on the frontlines of these issues, and the families who are impacted, were just not given a seat at the table,” Grey Bull said. “For that reason, I question motives and intent.”
Grey Bull is a member of Wyoming’s state task force on MMIP, the head of a Wind River Reservation-based MMIP advocacy group called Not Our Native Daughters, and Vice President of the Global Indigenous Council. She says the groups she’s involved with have delivered a number of recommendations to the Trump administration and members of Congress, and that they have largely been overlooked.
One of those recommendations is halting the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure projects on and near tribal land. Grey Bull said those projects bring large numbers of non-Native men to tribal communities and drive human trafficking of Native women and girls.
“If [the Trump administration] isn’t going to address that issue, how can we move forward with these cold case task force offices? They seem to contradict each other,” Grey Bull said.
She added that she advocates for restoring local control to tribal criminal justice systems, which frequently lack jurisdiction to prosecute non-Native perpetrators of violent crime, rather than increasing federal involvement.
Cheyenne Senator Affie Ellis, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who has authored state legislation on this issue, agrees that “more local justice is better” when it comes to MMIP.
“I think that’s a fair concern, but to do that would require several acts of Congress to untangle centuries of policy,” Ellis said.
Ellis is optimistic about the new Billings cold case office, and urged other MMIP advocates not to “let perfect be the enemy of good.”
“I want this office to be successful, because if they’re successful, hopefully it will bring resolution to a lot of pain that Native families are experiencing,” Ellis said. “I really hope that we as a country give it a chance to be successful.”
Montana-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Indigenous Justice Organizer Angeline Cheek, who is Hunkpapa Lakota and Oglala Sioux, told Yellowstone Public Radio she is cautiously optimistic.
“I hope that [the offices are] able to solve a lot of cases, but again there are community leaders who have been doing this for a long time and they need to be recognized and they need them to ask them to help,” Cheek said.
According to Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, collaboration with community leaders and advocates has been and will continue to be a guiding principle of the cold case task force effort.
“This issue is about collaboration. This issue is about partnership, and it’s about breaking down silos,” she said.
Sweeney expects the cold case task force offices to work closely with organizations like Wyoming and Montana’s state task forces on MMIP. She had harsh words for those who oppose the initiative.
“Anyone who is criticizing this type of effort is, in my opinion, a new depth of deprivation,” Sweeney said. “Because what we should be doing is coming together and unifying our communities for this cause.”
Operation Lady Justice is hosting a series of virtual tribal consultation sessions throughout August and September. A session dedicated to the Rocky Mountain and Great Plains regions is scheduled for 11:30am - 3:00 p.m. on August 25.