‘A matter of dignity’: Biden signs executive order to address violence against Indigenous people

By: - November 15, 2021 4:02 pm

Indigenous men and women used the #MMIW hashtag at the 2018 Women’s March in Phoenix to honor missing and murdered indigenous women. Photo by Melina Zuniga | Cronkite News

President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Monday addressing violence against Indigenous communities.

“These efforts are a matter of dignity,” Biden said during the opening ceremony for the White House Tribal Nations Summit. “That’s the foundation of our nation-to-nation partnership.”

The executive order directs the departments of Justice, Interior, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services to create a strategy that will improve the public safety and justice for Native Americans, as well as address the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous peoples.

“I’m proud to sign it. It’s long overdue,” Biden said while signing the order on Monday. “We’re going to make some substantial changes in Indian Country, and it’s going to continue.”

The executive order is titled “Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People.” 

“This builds on the work we did together on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 when we granted authority to tribes to excise jurisdiction over Non-Indian offenders who commit violence on tribal lands,” Biden said.

“We’re going to reauthorize that again, we’re going to expand the jurisdiction again to include other offenses like sex trafficking, sexual assault and child abuse,” he added.

The executive order states that “generations of Native Americans have experienced violence or mourned a missing or murdered family member or loved one, and the lasting impacts of such tragedies are felt throughout the country.” 

The first section of the order is geared toward policy. It stated that the Biden administration will work directly with tribal nations to strengthen public safety and criminal justice in Indian Country and beyond. 

“Previous executive action has not achieved changes sufficient to reverse the epidemic of missing or murdered indigenous people and violence against Native Americans,” the executive order states.

One section of the order dictates the coordination of federal agencies to prevent and respond to violence against Native Americans. It calls upon the attorney general and secretary of the Interior to assess and build on existing efforts to develop a federal law enforcement strategy focused on preventing and responding to violence against Native Americans.

The executive order also calls for support toward tribal and other non-federal law enforcement efforts to prevent and respond to violence against Native Americans, as well as improved data collection, analysis and information sharing. And Biden is calling for strengthening prevention, early intervention and victim and survivor services, along with a focus on consulting and engaging Indigenous communities.

On behalf of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said he wanted to acknowledge the decisive action made by Biden with his signing of the executive order on the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples.

“This is an issue the Tohono O’odham Nation has been working hard to address and requires the immediate attention of federal authorities, as well as tribal, state, and local law enforcement,” Norris said. 

“The (Tohono O’odham) Nation looks forward to greater consultation and coordination with our federal partners as we work to protect our people and bring perpetrators to justice,” he added.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Navajo Nation First Lady Phefelia Nez also commended Biden’s executive order and the other agencies’ commitments to tribal nations.

“Far too many Navajo people continue to endure the heartache and frustration of a missing loved one,” said Navajo President Nez. “We have to continue to work together to do more for our people.”

“The executive order will help agencies at the federal, state and tribal levels to better communicate and work together to address data sharing and collecting, responses by law enforcement and support for families of missing persons,” said Navajo Nation First Lady Nez, who is also a member of the New Mexico’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s and Relative’s task force.

There is no centralized database among the thousands of federal, state, and tribal entities, making data on missing and murdered Indigenous people limited.

For instance, missing person data can be pulled from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

The last report published by NamUs on missing Indigenous peoples was in August, where it stated that there are 734 unresolved missing Indigenous people’s cases from 36 states. Arizona has the thirst-highest number of cases at 55.

The NCIC publishes a roundup every year that highlights the total number of missing persons and unidentified person cases reported. In 2020, over 9,500 cases involving Indigenous people were reported, and nearly 1,500 were still active cases at the end of 2020. 

For murder rates among Indigenous peoples, the Interior Department reported that 2,700 cases of murder and non-negligent homicide offenses have been reported to the federal government’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.

Native Americans face unacceptably high levels of violence and are victims of violent crime at a rate much higher than the national average, Biden’s executive order states. This is especially true for Native American women, who are disproportionately the victims of sexual and gender-based violence, including intimate partner homicide.

In some tribal communities, women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average, according to the Department of Justice.

In 2017, homicide was reported as the fourth-leading cause of death among Indigenous women between the ages of 1 and 19 years and the sixth-leading cause of death for ages 20 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a report from the National Institute of Justice, 84% of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime, compared to 71% of white women.

“We acknowledge that our country has historically failed to meet the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous people with the urgency and the resources it demands,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said during the summit. “We also recognize that solving this crisis requires that we work in partnership with one another. The president’s executive order will build on and expand our efforts to do exactly that.”

Garland said that the Justice Department shares the President’s commitment to work in partnership with tribal nations to support comprehensive law enforcement, prevention, intervention, and support services.

“We are committed to working together to make tribal communities safer. We are committed to honoring and strengthening our nation-to-nation relationship. And we are committed to protecting the civil rights of Native Americans,” he added.

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues.