Only two weeks after being sworn in, Deb Halaand, the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in U.S. history, has announced the formation of the Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services to investigate the country’s ongoing epidemic of missing and murdered Native Americans, reports The Guardian. About 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native people across the US are listed as missing in the National Crime Information Center, while thousands of other cases of murder and non-negligent homicide have been reported to the federal government’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. In 2008, the justice department found that Native women on some tribal lands were murdered at more than 10 times the national average.
The new unit is expected to investigate unsolved cases as well as active missing and murdered investigations, and boost overall collaboration with such agencies as the FBI Forensic Laboratory and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It is also expected to build on the work by Operation Lady Justice, a presidential task force launched in 2019 under the Trump administration to examine missing and murdered Native cases that has been criticized by some as being vague and uninformed. While the formation of a unit poised to tackle this horrific epidemic of violence against Native people, especially women and girls, is seen as an important and potentially game-changing development, some activists caution that this is also only the start of important work. Roxanne White, a survivor of human trafficking, a family member of missing and murdered Indigenous people and an activist, said she hopes the government can go beyond cold cases and current investigations and actually help to prevent these horrific tragedies through trauma-informed, culturally based wraparound services, including housing and drug and alcohol treatment.