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Families, advocates mark day of awareness for Indigenous victims

Jeannie Hovland, the deputy assistant secretary for Native American Affairs for the US Department of Health and Human Services, opsed with a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women mask.
Jeannie Hovland, the deputy assistant secretary for Native American Affairs for the US Department of Health and Human Services, opsed with a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women mask.Mark Thiessen/Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Some shared agonizing stories of frustration and loss. Others prayed and performed ceremonies. All called for action.

Across the US on Wednesday, family members, advocates and government leaders commemorated a day of awareness for the crises of violence against Indigenous women and children. They met at virtual events, vigils, and rallies at state capitols and raised their voices on social media.

In Washington, a gathering hosted by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and other federal officials started with a prayer asking for guidance and grace for the Indigenous families who have lost relatives and those who have been victims of violence.

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Before and after a moment of silence, officials from various agencies vowed to continue working with tribes to address the problem.

As part of the ceremony, a red memorial shawl with the names of missing and slain Indigenous women was draped across a long table to remember the lives behind what Haaland called alarming and unacceptable statistics. More names were added to the shawl Wednesday.

Haaland, the first Native American U.S. cabinet secretary and a former Democratic U.S. representative from New Mexico, recalled hearing families testify about searching for loved ones on their own and bringing a red ribbon skirt to a congressional hearing that represented missing and slain Native Americans.

She believes the nation has reached an inflection point, saying it’s time to solve the crisis.

“Everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities, but the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples crisis is one that Native communities have faced since the dawn of colonization,” Haaland said as she joined the ceremony virtually.

In Montana, a few dozen members of the state’s eight federally recognized tribes gathered in front of the Capitol in Helena, including many relatives of missing and slain Indigenous women. Some wore red or had handprints painted over their mouths, symbolizing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement.

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Marvin Weatherwax, a Democratic state representative and member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said legislative initiatives to address the issue have given tribal citizens hope. The Blackfeet tribe has two ongoing searches for missing members.

The event ended with a ceremony called the “Wiping Away of Tears,” where victims’ family members were given colorful shawls. The gift marks the coming out of mourning, said Jean Bearcrane, a citizen of the Crow tribe and executive director of Montana Native Women’s Coalition.

“Among the tribes, when people are grieving, they wear black,” she said.

The sisters, mothers and aunts of missing women shed tears as they received their shawls.

Indigenous women have been victimized at astonishing rates, with federal figures showing that they — along with non-Hispanic Black women — have experienced the highest homicide rates.

Yet an Associated Press investigation in 2018 found that nobody knows the precise number of cases of missing and murdered Native Americans nationwide because many go unreported, others aren’t well documented, and no government database specifically tracks them.

In New Mexico, members of the state’s task force on Wednesday shared some of the findings of their work over the past year, which included combing through public records and requesting data from nearly two dozen law enforcement agencies to better understand the scope of the problem. Only five agencies responded.

Even with such limited data, they pointed to an estimated 660 cases involving missing Indigenous people between 2014 and 2019 in the state’s largest urban center, putting Albuquerque among U.S. cities with the highest number of cases.

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New Mexico’s task force will be expanded and its work extended into 2022, with the goal of recommending policy changes and legislation.

Other states also have established task forces or commissions to focus on the problem, with Hawaii becoming the latest through legislation that points to land dispossession, incarceration and harmful stereotypes as reasons for Native Hawaiians’ increased vulnerability to violence.

In Arizona, a couple of dozen people wearing red shirts and skirts gathered in front of the state Capitol in Phoenix. They included several state lawmakers, along with representatives of the Phoenix Indian Center and the motorcycle group Medicine Wheel Ride, which has been carrying a message of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Dr. Shelly Denny, of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, noted support for the cause has been growing as more members of Native communities share their stories.

“This movement was started by Indigenous women, many of whom their names will probably never be known. But they’ve been inching the movement forward,” she said.

Now, she said, “we’ll need to move into prevention, protection and prosecution.”

President Joe Biden has promised to bolster resources to address the crisis and better consult with tribes to hold perpetrators accountable and keep communities safe.

Haaland said that includes more staffing in a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs unit dedicated to solving cold cases and coordinating with Mexico and Canada to combat human trafficking.

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The administration’s work will build on some of the initiatives started during former President Donald Trump’s tenure. That included a task force made up of the Interior Department, the Justice Department and other federal agencies to address violent crime in Indian Country.

Advocates have said a lack of resources, language barriers and complex jurisdictional issues have exacerbated efforts to locate those who are missing and solve other crimes in Indian Country. They also have pointed to the need for more culturally appropriate services and training for how to handle such cases.

Over the past year, advocacy groups also have reported that cases of domestic violence against Indigenous women and children and sexual assault increased as nonprofit groups and social workers scrambled to meet the added challenges that stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic.

Bryan Newland, principal assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department, said staffing at the Bureau of Indian Affairs unit will go from a team of 10 to more than 20 officers and special agents with administrative and support staff it previously didn’t have.

He also said the federal government has started distributing funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, including $60 million for public safety and law enforcement in Indian Country.

“We’re really looking to build upon many of the things that have been done, to expand them and bring focus to them,” Newland said.

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Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Ariz. Associated Press/Report for America writer Iris Samuels in Helena, Mont., and AP writer Cheyenne Mumphre in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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