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Western Governors Association meeting tackles state of the MMIP crisis

Lynn Trujillo, Senior Counselor to the Secretary at the Department of the Interior, speaks with Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo and Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs at a panel on the MMIP crisis at the Western Governors Association winter meeting in Teton Village.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Lynn Trujillo, Senior Counselor to the Secretary at the Department of the Interior, speaks with Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo and Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs at a panel on the MMIP crisis at the Western Governors Association winter meeting in Teton Village.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Native American women are murdered at a rate ten times higher than the national average. How can state, federal, and tribal groups work together to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) crisis?

That’s what a panel at the Western Governors Association winter meeting in Jackson aimed to explore earlier this month. The panel was led by Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo and Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs. The two governors were joined by Lynn Trujillo, Senior Counselor to the Secretary at the Department of the Interior, and Deputy Premier of British Columbia Mike Farnworth.

Trujillo is a member of the Sandia Pueblo tribe in New Mexico and previously worked as secretary of the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department. She said one solution to the crisis rises above the rest.

“All of us agree, one of the most important factors is funding, just the dire need for funding,” she said.

Trujillo said more funding is needed for additional resources for law enforcement and for impacted families and communities. She said the Bureau of Indian Affairs is seeking increased funding in Biden’s FY24 budget request for its Public Health and Safety Program, its Justice Program, and the Tiwahe Initiative, which helps individual tribes design their own specific ways to address the crisis.

“[The program] brings human services, public safety, and justice together in a model that really empowers tribes to decide for themselves how to design their own programs and services that are culturally and traditionally appropriate,” she said.

Trujillo also highlighted the newly-released 212-page final report from the federally created Not Invisible Act Commission, a 36-member commission made up of tribal leaders, tribal law enforcement, families, survivors, federal law enforcement and federal officials. The report shares additional recommendations for solving the crisis, many of which will require funding or lawmaking from Congress.

She said the Department of the Interior is also working to improve its partnerships with the Department of Justice and FBI, so that the federal agencies can be better partners to states and tribes when cross-jurisdictional collaboration is necessary.

Trujillo said that while increased funding is crucial to combatting the crisis, giving tribes and individuals the tools to navigate the complex web of funding sources is also essential.

“One of the challenges that we hear from tribes, not only states, is ‘How do we leverage all these different pots of funding? And where do you even find them?’ Because they exist in different agencies at different levels, and it does take a lot of resources and people time to try to figure that out,” she said.

Michael Ute, the Vice-Chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, attended the session and made the case for the specific funding issues facing the Wind River Reservation during the Q&A portion of the panel.

“Probably within the last 10 years, I've noticed that the tribes here have a hard time accessing [funding]. Because we are looked at as the Wind River Reservation, we can't access certain types of funding, especially if it goes from one program to another to be dispersed,” Ute said.

Ute emphasized that the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes are the only two tribal nations in the United States that share a land base on the Wind River Reservation.

Ute said the fact that the federal government often releases a “lump sum” of money to the two tribes collectively rather than individually allocating funding can make it “impossible” for the tribes to figure out how to access needed resources.

“You have two tribes that may even have diametrically opposed ideas on how to use funding… then it goes to waste. Nothing happens, nothing moves forward, there’s no programs being done, there's no action. It just stalls,” he said.

Trujillo acknowledged the unique situation experienced by the two tribes on the Wind River Reservation and said she hoped the Department of Interior could help find a solution.

“It is unfortunate that if there's money appropriated and it's sitting there because there can't be some solution or commonality. Ultimately, the unfortunate thing is your tribal members are the ones who are losing out right on the services and resources,” she said.

Teresa His Chase is a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council and also spoke during the panel’s Q&A. She said it’s been 27 years since her sister Shelia was murdered and that the MMIP crisis has deep roots in historical traumas like the boarding school systems, the reservation systems, and the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864.

“It’s going to take ourselves leading the cause, because we know what we need and we know how to do it,” she said. “We know how to educate ourselves, but we do need increased funding and we do need to design our own cultural programming with our sovereignty, as two separate sovereign nations.”

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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