Nancy Solomon: This is The Takeaway. I'm Nancy Solomon in for Tanzina. Last week, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the creation of a new unit tasked with coordinating between federal agencies on cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, while there were nearly 6000 Indigenous women and girls reported missing in 2016, the Department of Justice only included 116 of those cases in their federal missing persons database.
The failure of law enforcement to pursue many of these cases is an issue Secretary Haaland has been outspoken on throughout her career. Here she is at a house subcommittee hearing in 2019.
Deb Haaland: The silent crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women has been my top priority since long before being sworn into Congress, and I'm appreciative that I'm here today to hear your testimony to help find solutions to this long-overdue issue in Indian country.
Nancy Solomon: But the new unit created by Secretary Haaland is not the first time the federal government has taken steps to address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Here with me now is Sarah Deer, a professor at the University of Kansas who focuses on the intersection of federal Indian law and victim's rights. She's also a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Sarah, thanks so much for being here.
Sarah Deer: Thanks for having me.
Nancy Solomon: What do you think of Secretary Haaland's announcement about the new unit?
Sarah Deer: As somebody who focuses on violence against native women, of course, I'm thrilled to see any effort to take this issue at the very top level. I think that because of her leadership, there's a chance we could really see some changes on the ground.
Nancy Solomon: How important is interagency communication when it comes to issues involving Indian country in particular?
Sarah Deer: One of the biggest challenges I talked about, and this is general, it's not just specific to crime, but tribal nations have to contend with three several federal agencies to meet the needs that the various tribes have. On the one hand, you have the Department of Interior, of course, we have the Department of Justice, and then we also have the Health and Human Services Department, which provides health care to native people. The problem has been that while all three agencies certainly have the best of intentions, sometimes they enact very different policies. That makes it very difficult for tribal nations to know how to navigate three separate federal agencies on a day-to-day basis.
Nancy Solomon: There was a Department of Justice Task Force created under former President Trump to look into this issue. How much did that task force accomplish, in your opinion?
Sarah Deer: I think the challenge with Trump's effort was that he issued essentially executive orders to create task forces to do research on the issue. We've had a lot of research on this issue, we can always use more, but President Trump's version of this effort didn't come with any money, and it was largely a volunteer effort, limited to one year. We need a lot more boots on the ground in terms of solving this problem long term.
Nancy Solomon: What are some of the main gaps that do exist when trying to get these law enforcement agencies to properly investigate these cases.
Sarah Deer: What we hear from families sometimes is that they report a loved one missing, and a law enforcement officer comes to take a report and finds out that she's suffered with addiction issues, she's recently lost custody of her child, and so they oftentimes don't fully investigate those. We also have challenges with cold cases, unsolved murders, and we don't necessarily have people on the ground who are actively investigating those cold cases.
Nancy Solomon: Sarah, you've spent a lot of your career writing about domestic violence and sexual assault against native women. How much attention have federal law enforcement agencies placed on those crimes in the past?
Sarah Deer: We've definitely had similar problems with responding to domestic violence and sexual assault. Frankly, those crimes are much more common than murder or missing persons. I would love to see the same amount of effort turn towards just violence against native people generally. I think the missing and murdered issue is getting a lot of attention right now because everyone can relate to what would you do if a family member were to go missing, yet we still are very underfunded in responding to more common crimes like domestic violence and sexual assault, which of course can lead to homicide or to missing persons.
Nancy Solomon: Do you think that this would require federal involvement at the same level to address sexual harassment or domestic violence?
Sarah Deer: Yes, definitely. Of course, you have to remember that there's over 570 federally recognized tribes, and there isn't going to be one policy that's going to fit for all 500 tribes, we have very small tribes, we have very large tribes. One of the challenges is to work with the federal system to not create a one size fits all policy or program, but rather a methodology for helping tribal nations find the best solution for their own communities.
Nancy Solomon: Are there concerns among tribal members that a more involved federal approach could lead to over-policing of Native people?
Sarah Deer: Absolutely. One of the challenges that we have is, per capita, Native people are much more likely to be victims and much more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system as perpetrators. Anytime you start to think, especially in this day and time, when you start to think about hiring more law enforcement officers, definitely, there's pushback from a variety of different angles. What we have to understand is that some of our tribes might be the size of the state of Connecticut, and yet they can only afford two patrol officers at any given time.
Under-policing is actually a problem in Indian country, again, not everywhere. We just need to make sure that if someone calls for help, that we have somebody who can respond, whether that's a police officer, or a social worker, or someone trained with mental health intervention crisis training. It doesn't have to be police, but we do need someone to respond to these cases.
Nancy Solomon: What would you suggest in terms of a more effective law enforcement response? Obviously, sounds like more officers on the ground, but what other kinds of interventions are needed?
Sarah Deer: I think we need to more carefully categorize Native women in any data collection. Oftentimes there may be a checklist, a law enforcement officer may need to check the race of the person missing, and it only says white, Black, Asian, Hispanic. Oftentimes, there's no box for American Indian, Native American, or Alaska Native. When we start entering those cases into any database, we may not be even collecting the data about Native cases or about Native women going missing.
Nancy Solomon: Sarah Deer is a professor at the University of Kansas and a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Thanks so much, Sarah.
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