As It Happens

As U.S. launches its own MMIWG task force, some Indigenous advocates are wary

U.S. President Donald Trump's new task force into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is "not necessarily a bad thing," says Indigenous advocate Patina Park.

Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center CEO not sure it will 'accomplish anything .... truly meaningful'

U.S. President Donald Trump listens to U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr speak during a signing ceremony for an Executive Order 'Establishing the Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.' (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump's new task force into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is "not necessarily a bad thing," says Indigenous advocate Patina Park.

The task force, launched Tuesday, aims to improve co-ordination and communication among federal, state and tribal authorities in response to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), the White House says. 

"Any time we're raising awareness of the issue, specifically at a federal or national level, is, I think, a positive," Park, CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, told As It Happens guest host Gillian Findlay.

"I'm just hesitant in my endorsement that this task force will really accomplish anything that would be truly meaningful."

Canada's National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls concluded this summer with 231 "calls to action" to end what it called a "genocide" against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.

'Aggressive, government-wide strategy'

Trump launched the task force —  dubbed Operation Lady Justice — on Tuesday at the Oval Office, calling it an "aggressive, government-wide strategy" to address the high rate of violence Indigenous people face in the U.S. 

"The statistics are sobering and heartbreaking," Trump said. "Too many are still missing and their whereabouts are unknown."

Patina Park is the president and CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, and co-chair of a state task force in Minnesota on missing and murdered Indigenous women. (Submitted by Patina Park)

Research by the U.S. National Institute has found more than four out of five American Indian and Alaska Native women — more than 1.5 million women —have experienced violence in their lifetime.

More than 5,700 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing in 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center, a government data agency.

Native American women are more than 2½ times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women of all other races, while one in three reports having been raped, the U.S. Department of Justice has said.

"It's imperative that this changes, in a manner that we're looked at not as the second-class citizens," Kevin DuPuis, chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said at the White House event.

"It's very, very important that we, as a people, have a true identity. And when we lose our women and we lose our children that goes with them."

'A 500-year dig into history'

According to the White House, the task force will "establish multi-jurisdictional teams" to collect data and "review unsolved cases."

But Park, who is the co-chair of a state task force on MMIW in Minnesota, says the government needs to go much deeper than that if they really want to tackle the issue. 

"Data collection is very important but, you know, also looking at what are the systems and the activities that the federal government itself does that lead to this vulnerability of our families to be exploited or to be kidnapped," she said.

"It really requires a very sophisticated, educated, informed, deep analysis of all of the issues that lead to the vulnerability of women and of our families at large. And that is, you know, a 500-year dig into history."

Trump displays an executive order launching the MMIGW task force on Tuesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

She said the government is right to say that jurisdictional issues hamper investigations into MMIWG cases — but she's not so sure law enforcement partnerships are the answer. 

"You're never quite sure who's actually doing the investigation, and frequently it's no one does, you know, because everyone kind of points the finger at the other jurisdiction," she said. "Give the tribes back jurisdiction so that we don't have this jurisdictional quagmire."

But the biggest issue with the task force, she says, is that it focuses exclusively on reservations. 

"This task force at the federal level is not acknowledging the urban or off-reservation tribal people, and we make up 70 percent of tribal people," she said.

"So if they focus only on reservation and tribal government kind of work, they're really only impacting around 30 per cent of the Native Americans across the United States who are impacted by this issue."

She isn't the only person expressing skepticism about the new task force.

"I think what's really upsetting is that it's limited to federal employees. So, there's no MMIW families; there's no survivors like myself," Annita Lucchesi of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, a database of MMIW in the Canada and the U.S., told ABC-affiliate KTUL.

Several leading Native American rights organizations did not respond to requests from The Associated Press to comment.

'When we scream, people don't hear'

The task force comes a week after the U.S. government announced an initiative to spend $1.5 million for law enforcement to help co-ordinate Native American missing persons cases, and the U.S. Senate advanced Savanna's Act, a bipartisan bill that seeks to address gaps in MMIWG data collection.

The bill is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a Native American woman from Fargo, N.D., who was murdered in 2017, her baby cut from her womb and her body dumped in a river. 

This Aug. 28, 2017 file photo shows a memorial to Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind outside the apartment where Greywind lived with her parents in Fargo. (Dave Kolpack/The Associated Press)

"Her story was incredibly tragic, but I think what many don't think about or realize is when she went missing it did not hit the news," Park said.

"I know mostly of people who are missing either by word of mouth or through Facebook and social media. I don't see it on the news. But when a very blond, blue eyed woman goes missing, it seems like the entire city or community rallies and attention is amplified across state lines."

That's why, despite her misgivings, she says she's still cautiously optimistic about these new government initiatives. 

"I think any way we can increase knowledge about how prevalent and problematic it is will help make other people pay attention," she said.

"Because there's just not enough of us remaining anymore — and so even when we scream, people don't hear."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Patina Park produced by Alison Masemann.