Forgive my cynicism but the notion that the United States (or any state’s) government can effectively intervene or investigate the causes and solutions for Missing and Murdered Indigenous women is utter horseshit and an exercise in hypocrisy.
On November 26, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order creating a White House task force on missing and slain American Indians and Alaska Natives called Operation Lady Justice.
At the signing, the Navajo Nation Vice President had this to say, “Our Native American people experience violence at a higher rate than any other nationality in the country. The lack of reporting and investigation of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples needs to be taken seriously…The executive order gives hope to our tribal nations that justice is being sought and that there is a path for healing of our families, victims, and survivors.”
Yet another task force. I don’t see hope here. I see and feel a chimera.
In The Isolation of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Efforts, I briefly discussed how the history of racist policies toward Native Americans fuel the continued disappearances and said, “I see no future for federal or state legislation through institutional bodies that have designed for hundreds of years to eradicate a race, fund less than 1/3 of indigenous language preservation programs that were intentionally erased by that same government, choose not to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and still repeatedly tries to take treaty lands.”
How is it that any government that seeks to dehumanize entire populations by not even recognizing them, eradicate people’s past and present, destroy lands, continually violate treaties, and steal from them be considered a source of assistance?
Matthew Fletcher, the director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University College of Law, when interviewed by Vox regarding the Frank LaMere Presidential Forum, had this to say about the US government’s role in Indian affairs:
Our understanding of the federal government’s duties to Indians and Indian tribes could be on the verge of changing dramatically. But right now, the federal government fails horrifically at the fulfillment of its duties — just look at Indian country’s poverty, crime rates, suicide rates, and poor health indicators.
The original understanding of the federal-tribal relationship was that the United States agreed to undertake a duty of protection to Indians and tribes. This means that the tribes gave up much of their exterior sovereignty, but they were to retain all the internal governmental powers they possess, like the power to make laws and enforce them within the tribe’s territory.
In many treaties, the federal government agreed to guarantee education, health care, housing, and other services to Indian tribes. The United States also agreed to manage and protect Indian tribes’ resources, such as lands and timber.
However, the duty of protection mutated politically into a guardian-ward relationship after a Supreme Court decision in 1831. It would also be the premise for the federal government to label Indian people legally incompetent. This way of thinking reached an apex in the 1880s when Congress federalized jurisdiction in Indian Country, broke up reservations into individual allotments, and made boarding school education mandatory.
What remains are two kinds of trust duties. The first kind is an actual trust, in which the United States holds and manages Indian and tribes’ assets in a trust. The second kind is referred to by the Supreme Court, inaccurately, as the general trust relationship, a kind of moral obligation to assist tribal interests. Labeling the duty as a moral obligation effectively renders the federal government’s obligations voluntary and unenforceable.
In a culture where Indigenous peoples’ asks for basic rights to their own land are ignored, met with militarized force, or taken away in congressional partnerships with multinational resource extraction companies, where promised health, housing and law enforcement services are chronically and intentionally underfunded, how can we expect anything other than the same?
When the Violence Against Women Act is held hostage in Congress and it’s language, particularly that focused on tribal provisions, would undermine domestic violence and sexual assault survivors’ efforts to attain justice on tribal lands and render tribal courts impotent, how will justice outside any courtroom be obtained?
When the US Commission on Civil Rights reported as late as December 2018, in it’s Broken Promises report, said the following how can any of what follows from the government be trusted:
Federal programs designed to support the social and economic wellbeing of Native Americans remain chronically underfunded and sometimes inefficiently structured, which leaves many basic needs in the Native American community unmet and contributes to the inequities observed in Native American communities. The federal government has also failed to keep accurate, consistent, and comprehensive records of federal spending on Native American programs, making monitoring of federal spending to meet its trust responsibility difficult. Tribal nations are distinctive sovereigns that have a special government-to-government relationship with the United States. Unequal treatment of tribal governments and lack of full recognition of the sovereign status of tribal governments by state and federal governments, laws, and policies diminish tribal selfdetermination and negatively impact criminal justice, health, education, housing and economic outcomes for Native Americans.
In 2003, the US Commission on Human Rights said nearly the identical thing in its “A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country. The reports, 15 years apart, show that nothing has changed in how the federal government refuses to support Indian Country: Unfortunately, relying on the goodwill of the nation to honor its obligation to Native Americans clearly has not resulted in desired outcomes.
If the government can’t accurately count Indian Census data, how are they going to count those that have been disappeared?
Existing policies are not merely paternalistic, they are racist and so institutionalized that change, if it were to come, would require yet another 400 years to be implemented, become effective and then, perhaps, trusted.
However, the thing that is the root upon which MMIW and other violence against Native American women has grown, in fact the root cause of it, is the initial organized, systemic slaughter and removal of Indigenous peoples from across the continent, the denials (from the very government that now pretends to want to help) of their humanity, and the continued institutional behaviors that bring historical attitudes to the modern era.
Any meaningful discussion, effective recourse or sea change in policy and practice requires the United States government to admit that the foundation of this country and the resulting impacts on communities and individuals have been caused by the initial government-sponsored traumas and the continued hundreds of years of racist, eradication-focused policies.
It is far too easy for the predominant culture to fall back on the ‘we’re not responsible for our Ancestors’ actions’ and deny that historical trauma has created grave harm reflected in individual and communal behaviors today. However, the current cultural mindset of Americans is one that perpetuates the attitudes and behaviors of our Ancestors. It’s one of the reasons that the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 is still in dispute. We owe apologies for both and own the responsibility for rectification.
In the signing ceremony for the Operation Lady Justice initiative, Navajo Second Lady Lizer said, “The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous persons has not only affected families, but it impacts communities. As leaders, we must continue to advocate for safety and justice for Native women and children. Most importantly, we need to address efforts to restore balance, love, and harmony within Native homes and communities.”
I believe for that to occur, there must be healing and it must begin with addressing individual and communal traumas connected to sexual abuse and the historical and continual traumas committed by the United States government and those who follow it’s lead. I believe a verbal and codified apology is owed by our governments to all indigenous communities, including those it refuses to recognize. It can start by honoring the treaties it has already signed, pass H.R. 1585 and S.2843, stop ‘consulting’ with tribes as a way to get around promises or payments, and, instead of paying lip service, actually fund services. The money isn’t an issue, the will is. The Broken Promises report includes this: “The United States expects all nations to live up to their treaty obligations and it should live up to its own.”
The involvement of the federal or state governments in addressing Missing and Murdered Indigenous women will not imbue trust in tribal or BIA police where there is none now. It will not root out the law enforcement officers on tribal lands, interstate highways and rural bi-ways who aid and abet those who move disappeared women and children along perfectly visible underground transport routes. Government task forces cannot change the mindset that brown-skinned women and girls have no value beyond how that skin can be commodified; they will not change the on-demand culture that sexual slavery fulfills nor the greed that fuels the partnership between organized crime and Indian gaming. Task forces, additional bureaucratic entanglements, misguided millions, legislation and enforcement won’t change how we raise boys, redefine the value of girls and physical violence, and move us into a healthy discussions about modern slavery, female sexual empowerment, and the increasing demand for paid sex with enslaved women and children who come from our most vulnerable populations.
Justice will only come with truths being revealed, deep amends being practiced and healing.