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Biden declares May 5 'Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day,' but challenges remain

Citizen Potawatomi Nation

President Joe Biden has officially declared Friday, May 5 Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day. It’s an issue many are calling a crisis.

Indigenous people experience some of the highest rates of violence. A study done by the National Institute of Justice found that more than four in five Native women (84.3 percent) have experienced violence in their lifetime, including 56.1 percent who have experienced sexual violence.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the murder rate is ten times higher than the national average for women living on reservations, and the third leading cause of death for Native women.

Oklahoma has some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country, and many of the victims are Indigenous.

The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma recently hired a federal prosecutor for a tribal relations role, and the U.S. Department of Justice has new guidelines as part of their strategy to combat missing and murdered Indigenous people (MMIP).

The new guidelines include standards on data collection, coordinating law enforcement agencies responsible for updating databases and improving law enforcement agency response rates. They are some of the earliest tangible work from the listening sessions set up by the Not Invisible Act and Savanna's Act, both of which passed in 2020.

The new tribal relations role is being filled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Arvo Q. Mikkanen, who is a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe. He'll help coordinate public safety efforts between the U.S. Attorney's office and the area's 21 tribal nations.

Melody Ybarra, who recently gave testimony on Oklahoma’s statistics to the Not Invisible Act Commission in Tulsa. Ybarra works for House of Hope, an organization run by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation that helps Native and non-Native survivors of domestic violence.

"In 2021, there were 138 domestic violence related fatalities in the state of Oklahoma. 86 of those were Indigenous," said Ybarra, whose own grandmother was sexually assaulted and killed in Pottawatomie County in 1978. "We are eighth in the nation for women killed by a single victim offender."

Kayla Woody, the prevention specialist who also works for House of Hope, said there are gaps when entities like local, tribal and state entities try to work together to solve missing Indigenous persons cases or homicides.

"There's a different process that needs to be taken when Native individuals are experiencing these types of crimes or when homicides are happening," said Woody.

When an Indigenous person goes missing, the case can be handled by either a federal, state or tribal official, depending on where they went missing from or if they were murdered on reservation or trust land. When a victim goes missing or is murdered on reservation or trust land, the federal government or tribal nation's criminal justice system gets involved. Sometimes, the federal government declines to prosecute cases involving murdered Indigenous people, leaving families without justice or answers.

Last year, Biden reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, which he helped pass more than 30 years ago. This was a move lauded by advocates who work for cases involving missing or murdered Indigenous women to be solved. This latest version expanded the jurisdiction tribal courts have over non-Native perpetrators of violence when they commit crimes against Native people on reservation land. Biden said in his press release proclaiming May 5, National Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Awareness Day, that he wanted to, "end the scourge of gender based violence."

"For the thousands of families who have lost or are still looking for a friend or loved one, I know this day is full of purpose and pain," said Biden. "Our Government has a solemn obligation to ensure that every case of a missing or murdered Indigenous person is met with swift, effective action to finally bring justice and healing. Together, we will get that done."

Last month, local organizations including House of Hope gave blistering testimony to the Not Invisible Act Commission saying that the response to MMIP cases were inadequate and that local law enforcement needed more education on the issue.

Woody says sees law enforcement at House of Hope domestic violence education trainings, but she'd like to see more officers from the county and city, not just tribal police officers.

Oklahoma recently passed two laws to help in MMIP cases: Kasey's Act, which is an alert system for missing Indigenous Adults, and Ida's Law: designed to get state, federal and tribal officials on the same page to solve MMIP cases.

Woody said it was great to see an adult alert system enacted.

"It's not just seeing our children and our elderly anymore. It is also seeing those adults that are missing that are critical and important," she said.

Woody wants more perpetrators of domestic violence to be held accountable, something she doesn't see happening.

"If the perpetrator was held accountable for those actions in the beginning, possibly that violence may not be able to continue," Woody said.

Even though Indigenous women face some of the highest rates of violence, there is a gap in culturally based services. Here are some organizations that offer resources and services for those who are experiencing domestic violence or help with missing and murdered Indigenous people:

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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