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Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.)

Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources representing Arizona’s Third Congressional District

When the Trump administration, at long last, released its policy priorities for Indian Country during Native American Heritage Month earlier this year, the White House proclaimed the president’s intent “to find solutions to longstanding challenges like missing and murdered Native Americans.” It was a reminder that while he paid lip service to the importance of addressing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis, President Trump has an almost entirely failed record on the issue. The incoming Biden-Harris administration has a lot of work to do in this area.

Indigenous women in the United States face murder rates at 10 times the national average, yet these cases of violence often go uninvestigated and unprosecuted. While there is no single explanation for this, a combination of jurisdictional barriers, government official indifference, targeted sex trafficking, intergenerational trauma, underfunded tribal justice systems, and inadequate communication between tribal, state, and federal entities have contributed to the persistence of high rates of MMIW cases.

Historically, the federal government has done little to respond to these cycles of generational violence. Fortunately, greater media attention in recent years and the 2018 election of the first two Native American congresswomen – one of whom, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), will be President-elect Biden’s nominee for secretary of the Interior – put genuine pressure on the Trump White House, not least because of increased public awareness of the issue.

The Trump administration’s MMIW work began with a 2019 executive order that established the Operation Lady Justice task force. After years of neglect, administration officials promised to consult with tribal governments on the “scope and nature” of the MMIW crisis, create federal procedures for solving MMIW cases, and develop regular progress reports. The administration still touts this order as demonstrating President Trump’s commitment to MMIW solutions. But Indian Country hasn’t forgotten that it took almost three years after his election for the president to sign the order, or that the task force’s membership has always been limited to federal appointees and excluded both tribal leaders and MMIW survivors.

Concerns about the project worsened during the coronavirus pandemic when technical difficulties sometimes prevented tribal leaders and activists from sharing their perspectives during the task force’s online listening sessions. The task force website currently provides little public information on its progress and doesn’t provide any of its mandatory public reports, leaving many to wonder precisely what Operation Lady Justice has accomplished.

As MMIW advocates know well, this epidemic of violence is not a new issue, nor will real progress come from a few limited listening sessions. Indian Country needs the passage of new laws informed by community input and the creation of permanent federal missing persons and justice programs. Unfortunately, when the president has opportunities for more substantive measures, he makes the wrong decision.

To take just one example, he refused to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which contained new funding and programmatic provisions to address MMIW. The Trump administration’s failure to acknowledge how limited tribal jurisdictions and scarce federal resources have contributed to the staggering epidemic of violence against Indigenous women is a much more serious – and damning – assessment of the president’s record than any list of last-minute “priorities.”

The incoming Biden-Harris administration has a chance to do better. It should avoid superficial shows of support and instead follow the policy recommendations that tribal communities have been offering for years. Many of these recommendations were voiced at our March 2019 Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States oversight hearing on the issue, which featured exactly the kinds of testimony the administration has had access to – and ignored – for four years now.

A panel of Indigenous women told the Subcommittee about the need for comprehensive federal MMIW data collection, permanent MMIW federal funding streams, expanded tribal law enforcement jurisdictions, and greater collaboration between tribal and federal entities. Echoing the sentiments of the other witnesses, Prof. Sarah Deer stated, “When crafting solutions, we have to be ready to accept that there will be no ‘quick fix’ to this problem. This crisis has been several hundred years in the making and will require sustained, multi-year, multi-faceted efforts to understand and address the problem.”

Where the Trump administration offered unimaginative MMIW responses that maintained the status quo, the Biden-Harris administration has a chance to listen to Prof. Deer and her colleagues – and they should take it. The real work of protecting the lives of Indigenous women will begin when we implement concrete substantive policies at the federal level. When that happens, Indian Country can breathe a sigh of relief that the new administration has moved past the need for listening sessions.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. He represents Arizona’s Third Congressional District and has championed stronger tribal sovereignty since joining Congress in 2003.