Senator Lisa Murkowski and Attorney General William Barr in Napaskiak Village, Alaska. (Marc Lester)

PABLO, Mont. - Attorney General William P. Barr traveled to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) to formally announce the Department of Justice’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Initiative. In the CSKT council chambers, Barr framed the MMIP Initiative as, “a step in the right direction” not “a panacea.” A week that saw two MMIW bills, the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act, advance with unanimous votes from the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, had the GOP unveil its version of a Violence Against Women Act reauthorization that tribal leaders slammed for undermining tribal sovereignty and courts, ended with Barr’s MMIP strategy rollout on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.

Savanna’s Act advanced without the amendments proposed by the tribal alliance of the Global Indigenous Council (GIC), the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC) and the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA). Despite wide bipartisan support in the House and Senate, committee chair Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) and the bill’s co-sponsors, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-NV), reluctantly omitted the amendments due to concerns over securing additional appropriations to implement the measures.

Montana's Congressional Delegation - Senator Jon Tester, Rep. Greg Gianforte and Senator Steve Daines.

The DOJ acknowledged that the MMIP Initiative was influenced by the findings of the AG’s Advisory Subcommittee on Native American Issues (NAIS) which met in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico, and the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) listening session in New Buffalo, Michigan, both in August. However, a DOJ official speaking on the condition of anonymity, disclosed that a combination of Barr’s visit to Alaska Native villages in May with Senator Lisa Murkowski, the GIC/RMTLC/GPTCA Savanna’s Act amendments that had been presented to Murkowski the previous December, and Senator Jon Tester’s  Studying the Missing and Murdered Indian Crisis Act – which originated with the Global Indigenous Council and Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council – all provided impetus for Barr to act.

Senator Tester’s bill directed the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a full review of how federal agencies respond to reports of MMIP and to recommend solutions based on those findings. After the bill passed the House, the GAO took up the request without further legislative action. The DOJ official suggested Barr’s MMIP Initiative was to preempt what are likely to be damning findings.

Both the RMTLC and GIC are based in Montana, and Senator Tester said he welcomed Barr’s visit to the state. “I hope that during his visit, he has a chance to see firsthand the impacts of his Department's failure to address the public safety needs of our state and his disregard for Montana's most vulnerable populations. I hope he'll see that the Justice Department needs to do more to address major issues facing Montana—the MMIW crisis, human trafficking, and meth use—and that today’s visit renews his commitment to solving these crises.”

The pillars of Barr’s MMIP Initiative reflect significant elements of the GIC/RMTLC/GPTCA Savanna’s Act amendments and recommendations the alliance has previously made to lawmakers and administration officials. “Specialized FBI rapid deployment teams” that “upon request by a tribal, state, or local law enforcement agency the FBI will provide expert assistance based upon the circumstances of a missing indigenous persons case”; comprehensive data analysis “to analyze data collection practices to identify opportunities to improve missing persons data and share the results of this analysis with our partners in this effort”; and the establishment of “MMIP coordinators” to “work closely with federal, tribal, state and local agencies to develop common protocols and procedure for responding to reports of missing or murdered indigenous people” mirror the tribal alliance’s submissions.

CSKT Councilwoman Shelly Fyant in the council chambers where AG Barr announced the DOJ's MMIP Initiative

The DOJ is engaging its 11 MMIP coordinators in the states that the Global Indigenous Council initiated and targeted for its national MMIW billboard awareness campaign, including Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, Michigan, Utah, Nevada, Minnesota, Oregon, New Mexico, and Washington state.

“I am honored to provide full support of the Global Indigenous Council on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women crisis,” said Congresswoman Deb Haaland, a co-sponsor of the House version of the Not Invisible Act. “It is my privilege to support the national billboard campaign. With your help we continue to raise awareness so we can end the silence of this crisis!”

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), Co-Sponsor of the Invisible More Act

When asked for comment, the Global Indigenous Council provided a statement which said the organization hadn’t engaged in any direct discussions with AG Barr but acknowledged meeting with Senator Murkowski on the MMIW tragedy and being apprised by the senator’s staff. “Conversations the GIC has with lawmakers and their staffs remain confidential unless the lawmakers advise otherwise,” the response concluded.

“This is an instance where it’s not the journey but the destination that matters,” added GIC Executive Director, Rain Bear Stands Last. “There are divisive political realities to navigate, so whatever route we all need to take to get there, be it through legislation, appropriations, or department initiatives, we will. There are many organizations working on the MMIW/MMIP tragedy and there is commonality in a lot of the recommendations being made. Be it Attorney General Barr or a lawmaker, the more that different voices reinforce the needs and urgency, the more you hope the message resonates,” he said.

Supporting Barr’s announcement, FBI Director, Christopher Wray, insisted that the Bureau is “dedicated to delivering justice and to the FBI’s mission to protect all the people we serve. We reaffirm our focus on allocating resources to serve Native American needs.”

Wray’s assurances have not convinced Senator Tester. “The violence that Native people experience does not stop at Indian reservation borders, and neither do the FBI’s responsibilities,” said Tester. “With such a high number of cases occurring short distances from Indian reservations, the FBI must be more proactive and provide all available resources to counties investigating crimes against Native Americans,” he insisted.

Tester and fellow Montana senator, Steve Daines, feature in Somebody’s Daughter, a soon-to-be premiered documentary on the MMIW tragedy produced by the Global Indigenous Council, which was supported by the Blackfeet Nation and CSKT. Through case studies and the accounts of victims’ families, the documentary covers a breadth of factors that contribute to the tragedy, including the failures of law enforcement highlighted by Senator Tester and the nexus of cartel meth distribution and human trafficking by gangs that is a focus of Senator Daines.

CSKT Policy Analyst and former Vice Chairwoman, Jami Pluff, who met with Barr and is also in Somebody’s Daughter, said she was among those who raised the meth-gang-human trafficking dynamic with the AG. “We all spoke about that correlation with the Attorney General,” she confirmed. Pluff recently served as a panelist at the first MMIW Tribunal held in the US, which was hosted by the Blackfeet Nation and organized by the Global Indigenous Council. The tribunal garnered the attention of many of the 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates, including frontrunners Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“To address this problem, I realize that I cannot do it alone. I will work with tribal leaders and collaborate with community partners. My administration will collaborate with community organizations, such as the Global Indigenous Council, to lift up the years of organizing and advocacy, and raise the profile of the issue. Only by elevating this issue and putting resources to address it can we truly secure the safety of indigenous women and girls. When I am elected, you will have a strong ally in this fight in the White House,” committed Mayor Pete.


MMIW images courtesy of Alter-Native Media.

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