Federal government officials visited Rapid City this week to learn how they can help local tribal, health and public safety leaders address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW), men and children.
We're here to "hear first-hand the local perspective," Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior, said Wednesday during an interview between sessions at the Reclaiming our Native Communities Roundtable. "We need to have all partners on board to attack these issues that plague our communities. We can't do it from Washington alone and crafting a plan is D.C. and trying to force feed it down to the local level, it doesn't work, and a cookie cutter approach doesn't work."
Sweeney — a member of two Iñupiat tribal nations who's the first Alaska Native to hold her position — said local leaders spoke about fighting drug use, needing more funding, and working to improve communication and coordination between tribes and the federal government.
The day-long meeting was closed to the public so the Journal could not hear those concerns first-hand. But Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, slammed the federal government in a YouTube video of his speech, saying the government is not listening to and properly funding tribes and that if it cares about MMIW it needs to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline.
"Why does the government come on their agenda? When are they going to come on our agenda?” he asked. “The BIA still controls and keep our people down."
Frazier said he wants to talk about alcohol use and the impact of flooding on South Dakota reservations. He said one of his reservation’s roads has been closed since late May, and a school hasn’t had a math teacher for six years.
He said tribes need more money for police officers, courts and lawyers to improve public safety and tackle drug use — changes that could help prevent murders and disappearances and make people want to invest in economic development on reservations.
Wednesday's meeting at the Holiday Inn in downtown Rapid City was the fourth roundtable hosted by the DOI after President Donald Trump declared May 5 Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day. The department previously held roundtables at the Gila River Reservation in Arizona and at two sites in Alaska.
Native Americans are 2.5 times more likely to experience violent crime and at least twice as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other ethnicities, according to the Department of Justice.
In order to collect more specific data on missing and murdered indigenous people, the Bureau of Indian Affairs recently worked with NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System) to add new categories to its database, said Charles Addington, deputy director of the Office of Justice Services at the BIA and a member of the Cherokee nation of Oklahoma. Now, any law enforcement agency can add tribal affiliation, whether someone lives on a reservation and whether they went missing from one.
South Dakota is also working on improving its data collection. A new law requires the Division of Criminal Investigation to collect data on missing and murdered indigenous people and create procedures and training for investigating cases involving women and children.
Sweeney said that Frazier wasn’t the only attendee to bring up the need for more funding. Frazier told the Journal that his tribe has diverted money from its jail to its dispatch center, and Sweeney said she’s aware that other tribes divert money to law enforcement.
“There's always a need for more increase, but it is increasing as the years go,” Addington said while Sweeney pointed out that it's Congress that determines BIA funding.
Sweeney said the best programs to combat MMIW are ones that involve cooperation between tribal, local, state and federal authorities.
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"When you start to see collaboration at that level, those types of partnerships, you start to see change,” she said.
Sweeney said she liked Frazier’s idea of creating a shared database so tribes can track people who've been banned from reservations due to their criminal activity, and said there’s nothing stopping him from leading that intertribal effort.
Jeannie Hovland, who works on Native American issues with the Department of Health and Human Services, said it’s important for programs to incorporate Native culture and language.
“It’s healing and it’s prevention,” said Hovland, a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe.
Frazier also spoke about the link between MMIW and the Keystone XL pipeline.
"If you are here to protect our people and our way of life, then you need to help us fight the Keystone pipeline,” Frazier told the federal officials. “You talking about MMIW? Back home there's a fear of these man camps. How many of our people are going to become missing? What are you going to do to protect us?”
Data and reporting show that the oil boom in North Dakota and Montana was associated with an increase in violent crime, often on reservations and against women.
“We’re not here to talk about Keystone or opine on any sort of policy that may be taking place outside of Indian Affairs,” Sweeney said when asked if the BIA can do anything to address these safety concerns.
“There's still this thought that it's what we see in the movies and it's so different today with technologies,” she said.
"I have long supported efforts to improve public safety and justice in Indian Country,” Sen. John Thune said in an email when asked about local leaders stressing the need for more funding. “Ensuring that adequate resources are available to tribes is certainly an important aspect of addressing the unique law enforcement needs in tribal communities.”
“Throughout my time in public service, I have seen the difficulties tribes face in adequately addressing their law enforcement needs,” Sen. Rounds said. He said he’s happy to listen to tribes and discuss legislation, and pointed to his helping the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate receive $5 million for its new detention facility.
"The crisis of abducted and murdered Native American women is one that has been too long ignored,” Rep. Dusty Johnson said. He pointed to his support of Savanna’s Act, a bill that would improve tribal resources, data collection, information sharing and inter-agency coordination.
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