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'Step Towards Justice' In Indian Country: Haaland Launches Missing And Murdered Unit

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland's swearing-in last month.
Interior Department
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland's swearing-in last month.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has created a new unit to confront the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people, reflecting the first Native American Cabinet secretary's prioritization of the issue in leading an agency that once sought to "civilize or exterminate" Native people.

The Missing & Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs will help state, federal and tribal law enforcement agencies better track and investigate active murders and disappearances in Indian Country. It builds on a Trump administration task force created last year by adding new leadership and support positions.

"Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades. Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian Country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated," Haaland said in a statement accompanying Interior's announcement last week. "The new MMU unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families."

The Interior Department says there are currently more than 4,000 unresolved disappearances and homicides in Indian Country. But the actual number is estimated to be much higher.

Native Americans face some of the highest violent victimization rates in the country, according to Lynn Jones, a criminology professor at Northern Arizona University.

"The creation of the missing and murdered unit is a step towards justice, ultimately, for these victims," Jones said. "It's giving them the attention they deserve." 

Congress has appropriated $7 million to help address the crisis, money that will fund the hiring of unit leaders, victim specialists and analysts. The team will be scattered across seven cities in the U.S., including Billings, Mont., and Albuquerque, N.M. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Nate is UM School of Journalism reporter. He reads the news on Montana Public Radio three nights a week.
Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau based at Yellowstone Public Radio. He earned an M.A. in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism in 2016 and interned at NPR’s Morning Edition in 2014. In a prior life, he toured around the country in a band, lived in Texas for a spell, and once tried unsuccessfully to fly fish. You can reach Nate at nate@ypradio.org.
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