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National Program To Combat Crisis Of Missing And Murdered Indigenous People Debuts In Oklahoma

Allison Herrera / KOSU
Indigenous women march to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous Women at the 2019 Women's March in San Francisco, Calif.

The U.S. Attorneys of the Northern and Eastern District of Oklahoma announced a new pilot program on Monday to combat the ongoing problem of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Oklahoma.

The Tribal Community Response Plan pilot project is a collaborative effort between tribes, law enforcement and victims advocates. It's set to start immediately, while more pilot programs will be announced in Montana, Minnesota, Alaska, Michigan and Oregon in the coming weeks.

Native Americans experience some of the highest rates of violence in the country. According to figures put out by the Department of Justice, Native American women are two and a half times as likely to be the victim of a violent crime.

In Oklahoma, there are 65 cases of missing Indigenous people.

The pilot is the latest in a series of efforts to address the scourge. In November 2019, Attorney General William Barr announced the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Initiative. That initiative dedicated $1.5 million to hire MMIP coordinators in 11 states, including Oklahoma.

Later that month, President Trump issued an executive order establishing Operation Lady Justice to address the issue of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. One directive included improving the way law enforcement investigators and prosecutors respond to the high volume of such cases, and collecting and sharing data among various jurisdictions and law enforcement agencies.

In October 2020, Savannah's Act and the Not Invisible Act were signed into law by President Trump. Savannah's Act specifically calls for U.S. Attorneys to develop regionally appropriate guidelines in consultation with Tribes to respond to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans.

The pilot program announced Monday responds to those laws and sets regional guidelines in four areas that respond to missing and murdered Indigenous people. They include a collaborative response from law enforcement agencies including local police, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney. The pilot will also develop culturally appropriate and trauma informed victim services and create a proactive community outreach. In addition, it will develop new ways to deliver accurate and timely information to the media.

One of the biggest criticisms from victims is that their concerns are often ignored by law enforcement or that their cases aren't taken seriously. Sometimes media accounts focus on the Indigenous victim’s past including addiction, abuse or incarceration, while non-Indigenous victims don't undergo the same scrutiny.

Credit U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Oklahoma
Shawn Partridge, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Acting Secretary of Community and Human Services and President of the Native Alliance Against Violence, speaks at Monday's press conference.

Unique Situation in Oklahoma

Shawn Partridge has worked with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault for more than 15 years at Muscogee (Creek) Nation's Family Violence Prevention Program. Partridge is also the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's Acting Secretary of Human & Community Services and serves as Board President of the Native Alliance Against Violence. She touted the pilot program's collaborative efforts.

"The affirmation of our reservation by the U.S. Supreme Court only strengthens our commitment to working in coordination with all of tribal federal, state and local partners," she said.

At Monday’s announcement, Partridge stood with Choctaw Citizen and the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma Trent Shores and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma Brian Kuester as they announced the new program with Principal Chief David Hill of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation.

"I can tell you that our local plan will incorporate our unique jurisdictional status here in Eastern Oklahoma," explained Shores.

He also stressed that any guidelines developed would be done so in collaboration with the Tribes. In the past, Tribes have felt that a two-tiered system of justice exists: one that operates in Indian Country without much help or support and another one that caters to mostly non-Indigenous people, where more attention and resources are devoted.

Shores says he wants Tribes to be in the driver's seat.

"I don't think we can approach our public safety and law enforcement responsibilities in Indian Country without the respect for the cultural component," Shores said. "It goes together hand in glove."

Shores will first be working with the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) Nations to develop the first set of guidelines for the program. As they are developed, Tribes will have a chance to further review them,  and then they will be revised and expanded nationwide.

"I think that what it will do certainly locally for us, and then regionally, is help us to have a better handle on how we are responding to these cases," explained Shores.

"We think it's really important to figure out how it is that we communicate with the public anytime there's a missing persons case so that everyone can have an opportunity to not just have noticed, but, provide information to law enforcement or families," said Shores.

Hill spoke of the significance of this Tribal response program being announced on the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's reservation. He thanked Shores and Keuster's offices for working with the Nation since the U.S. Supreme Court' decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma on Jul. 9.

"The issue that we meet to address here today is one of the main focuses to uphold the Supreme Court decision," said Hill, referring to some agencies who would like to see MCN's reservation status disestablished.

"The safety and protection of our people and our demand for justice is one of the most important things to tribal leaders," said Hill.


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Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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