Forgotten No More: Secretary Deb Haaland Announces Task Force For Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women

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Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Announces New MMIW Task Force
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There is a crisis in this nation, and you've likely heard nothing about it. That's because it's about the disproportionate number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

The Urban Indian Health Institute notes that homicide is the third leading cause of death for Native women between the ages of 10 to 24 — and the numbers are likely much higher.

Fortunately, our new Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, herself a Native woman, has announced a new Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services (BIA-OJS) to address the crisis.

Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, told ABC, “We see what representation looks like. You have an indigenous woman leading as secretary of the interior with the authority and the ability to address some of the most pressing crises in Indian country.”

According to the press release from the US Department of the Interior, approximately 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native missing persons have been entered into the National Crime Information Center, and approximately 2,700 cases of murder and homicide have been reported to the Federal Government’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

The high number of cases involving missing Native women has gone unaddressed for far too long, with numerous examples of under-investigation and underfunding.

Some police departments do not have a category for missing Native people, making it difficult to gather accurate records capturing the full extent of these crisis.

With this new task force, Haaland promises to take the necessary steps to “keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families.”

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In 2019, the federal government formed a Missing and Murdered Unit dubbed Operation Lady Justice (OLJ) to review these cases. Haaland hopes to expand this and establish a unit chief to develop its policy. They plan to work with the BIA and the FBI to review the cases and get to some of the root causes of this issue.

Before the establishment of that taskforce charged with developing strategies to address the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), individual communities, artists, and activists strove to raise awareness within the general public.

There have been many marches and protests, with tribal members speaking out on the overwhelming prevalence of violence against women in their community, as well as the work that needs to be done to address police incompetence and safety concerns on tribal reservations. 

Marches, online movements and protests raise awareness of and advocate for #MMIW

There have been many marches and protests, with tribal members speaking out on the overwhelming prevalence of violence against women in their community, as well as the work that needs to be done to address police incompetence and safety concerns on tribal reservations. 

Below is a short list of some of these events:

May 5th is the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

On this day, people wear red or display a red dress outside of their home, place of work, or office.

IN 2011, Jaime Black, a Canadian artist of mixed Anishinaabe and Finnish decent, began The REDress Project.

The REDress Project is an installation of red dresses hung in public places, representing the absence of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

“Through the installation, I hope to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence,” Black said.

Sing Our Rivers Red is a traveling art exhibit founded in 2015 by a collective of 10 artists.

They asked for donations of single earrings, not pairs.

"The idea is that if you were to find that one earring on the ground from the person that was abducted, you have one and the person who was abducted has the other one,” said Natalie Rosseau. They have collected 3,406 earrings.

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Native activists use their art and passions to raise awareness.

For instance, Jordan Marie Bring Three White Horses Daniel of the Kul Wicasa Oyate, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, ran marathons with “MMIW” painted on her legs and a red handprint on her face.

This inspired other athletes and youth, such as Rosalie Fish, to do the same and incorporate that imagery into their social media platforms and art.

In 2017, Marita Growing Thunder of the Fort Peck Sioux Tribe raised awareness to MMIW with a ribbon skirt installation she spent her senior year of high school working on.

Her aunt taught her how to sew skirts, and tragically, that aunt and another one were both murdered.

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Growing up she felt their absence of her loved ones. “I speak through my art form,” she said.

Her project, Save Our Sisters, is hand-sewn ribbon dresses to raises awareness to the missing woman in the US and Canada. In 2019, she and 16 of her peers walked for four days across the Flathead Indian Reservation in ribbon dressed and a sign saying Save Our Sisters.

Amid the dance contests and grand entries, pow wows have Red Dress Specials where dancers in red regalia dancer to raise awareness for women going missing and encourage safety.

The Red Dress Special originated with the Ojibwe tribe who began doing red Jingle Dress Dance Specials as healing dances.

Now many tribes across the U.S. do the same or a variation of a Red Dress Special. This is a way to talk to their communities about the importance of safety and to let them know their lost loved ones are not forgotten.

Tragically, Iot has been up to tribal communities to demand action for the loved ones who have gone missing or were murdered.

Tribal communities wait in anticipation at what might come. Echo-hawk makes a powerful point when talking to ABC News:

“It's not enough to search for them when they go missing or investigate the crimes when they're murdered. We have to be at the point of prevention."

Hopefully, with Secretary Haaland in charge, things will start to change. Native and Indigenous women deserve protection and respect, and hopefully the efforts of these artists and activists will be maginified by the addition of Haaland to President Biden's cabinet, and her new task force.

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Leeann Reed is a writer who covers news, pop culture, and love, and relationship topics.