During his visit to Arizona at the beginning of May, President Donald Trump took some time out to comment on his administration’s efforts to help the state’s large Native American population combat the Coronavirus pandemic and, as he put it, to bring attention to “the unprecedented actions my administration has taken to support our treasured Native American communities.” The President said that his administration has improved “the lives of Native American families and tribes more than any administration has done by far.”
That is quite a claim, and it’s not supported by the evidence.
Trump touted the eight billion dollars Congress appropriated to assist American Indian nations, which he claimed, “is the largest single investment in Indian Country in our history.” The President announced as well that the Navajo Nation will receive an additional $600 million in assistance. “That’s a lot,” he said. Trump then asked, according to the White House transcript of the meeting, “Should I renegotiate that? Can we renegotiate that? (Laughter).” “Only if you go up,” said Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer.
Lizer can be forgiven for not laughing. As of May 28th, the Navajo Nation had suffered more than 5000 active cases of COVID-19, and 167 deaths, and the third-highest per capita rate of infection in the Country.
“Since I took office,” Trump continued, “my administration has also worked to repatriate precious Native American artifacts, to protect children in the care of the Indian Health Service, and to make eagle remains more easily accessible for cultural and religious purposes, and to highlight the contributions of Native American veterans throughout the history of our nation.” None of the items on this list are unprecedented, and all are required by laws that predated Trump’s election in 2016.
Make no mistake, Trump’s presidency has been mostly bad for Native Americans. His racist name-calling directed at Elizabeth Warren reinforced damaging stereotypes about Native American identity. Within days of taking office, he authorized completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline and ignored the protestors at Standing Rock, and rolled back protections on sacred sites like the Bears Ears National Monument. His fetish for Andrew Jackson has bothered those who know anything at all about that president’s record concerning Native America, and Trump’s budgets have imposed cuts on the Indian Health Service at a time when additional funding was badly needed. In fact, the $800 billion in funding has been tied up in court as tribes have clashed with the nation on who should receive the payments. He has ignored the problem of police violence towards Native Americans. The President has been more talk than action, and those actions are usually bad.
With one exception.
In November of 2019, the President signed an Executive Order establishing a task force “on Missing and Murdered American Indian and Alaska Natives,” charged with consulting tribal governments “on the scope and nature of the issues” related to missing and murdered women and girls, developing “model protocols and procedures to apply to new and unsolved cases of missing or murdered persons in American Indian and Alaska Native communities,” as well as the “establishment of a multi-disciplinary, multi-jurisdictional team” including representatives from tribal law enforcement agencies and the federal Departments of Justice and Interior.
Dubbed “Operation Lady Justice,” the task force held consultation/listening sessions in January and February of this year but had to shelve the rest of its schedule, which was to have run through the end of July, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
This is a serious problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control found that 49 percent of Native American women have experienced sexual violence. The Department of Justice reported that 34.1 percent of Native American women will be raped during their lifetime, more than for any other ethnic or racial grouping. As President Trump indicated when he signed the Executive order, “the statistics are sobering and heartbreaking.” He said that “more than 5,000 Native American women and girls were reported missing,” and though the majority return home or are found, “too many are still missing and their whereabouts are unknown—and they usually don’t find them.”
It was this task force about which he spoke during his visit to Arizona. He issued a proclamation making May 5th “Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day.”
Many of these missing women have been caught in a web of human trafficking, the exact breadth of the problem unknown. It is a problem of great magnitude but hazy borders. In this sense, the President’s effort to bring additional attention to this issue is welcome. More resources are needed. Nearly half of tribal law enforcement agencies who responded to a Government Accountability Office called for the information reported that they believe human trafficking is occurring on tribal lands within their jurisdictions. The President can educate Americans about the problem of missing and murdered women and girls.
These are crimes on the margins. Native communities are poor. They are isolated. The Supreme Court has made the prosecution of non-Indians by tribal law enforcement officers difficult where it is not impossible. Native American history is a story of tragedy, violence, crime, theft, and plunder. It is, at other times, a story of blundering goodwill. Even those who want to do right often do damage. But the harm is not inevitable, and nations, like individuals, have choices. In this one instance, the President and his handlers have made the right one. The Task Force is still on schedule to report to the President sometime after the election. Let’s hope, whatever the outcome in November, that this important first step is not one wasted.