And it was not terrible. As in his two earlier proclamations, Biden pledged to work with Native communities “to find justice, keep families safe, and help them heal.” The scourge of MMIWG was “an epidemic,” he said, that will not be cured until the United States responds “with urgency and the resources needed to stop the violence and reverses the legacy of inequity and neglect that often drives it.”
Biden recalled the work his administration has done, mostly through a 2021 executive order that required federal agencies to investigate “the cause of the crisis, collecting better data on these overwhelmingly underreported crimes, and develop a strategy to combat this epidemic, which most often impacts women, girls, LGBTQI+ people in the communities, and Two-Spirit Native Americans.” Is Biden the first American president to use the phrase “Two-Spirit”?
Biden has done a lot: investing in shelters and rape crisis centers on Tribal lands and “trauma-informed training that helps law enforcement and courts be more responsive” and sympathetic, as well as an expanded recognition of “Tribal courts’ jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators suspected of committing crimes of stalking, sexual assault, child abuse and sex trafficking on Tribal lands.” Biden justly mentioned his role in writing the original Violence Against Women Act and in strengthening VAWA as Vice President and President. President Biden acknowledged the pain this day brought to many Indigenous peoples, and called “all Americans and all levels of government to support Tribal governments and Tribal communities’ efforts to increase awareness and address the issues of missing and murdered Indigenous persons.” He said that “we are working to address the underlying causes of violence from human trafficking to longstanding economic disparities, systemic racism, historical trauma, and the need for services to address substance use disorders.”
Has Biden done enough?
Of course not. Much remains to be done. His administration, like that of his predecessor, will not consider supporting legislation that would repeal the Supreme Court’s disastrous 1978Oliphant decision. The Supremes are poised within the next several weeks to gut the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, and have demonstrated little willingness to take seriously Native American nationhood when it threatens at a profound level state sovereignty. Though Biden’s approach to MMIWG is little different in its fundamentals than President Trump’s “Operation Lady Justice,” it is a start.
Presidential proclamations may not mean much. I am sure that only a tiny, tiny percentage of Americans read them. If the news media does not bring them to the attention of the American people, they fall on deaf ears. There is little this government can do to help Indigenous communities heal, not with Red State governments banning any sort of history teaching that suggests that children reflect on the uglier parts of this nation’s history. The Republican racists will work to silence America’s violent treatment of Native Americans. But it is a start. And the important thing to remember is that Biden, like Trump before him, has only come to see MMIWG as a national crisis because of the pressure placed upon him by thousands of Native American people and their allies committed to preventing the loss of any more stolen sisters.
Sometimes I feel like a am teaching America’s original sin. I have felt that way a lot recently. Over the past week I have listened to the first six episodes of Connie Walker’s excellent new podcast, “Stolen: The Search for Jermain.” She focuses on the disappearance, and also the life, of Jermain Charlo, a 23-year-old woman from the Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana who disappeared from Missoula in the summer of 2018.
During the final year of the Trump Administration, the President designated May 5th as “Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day,” and he established by executive order “Operation Lady Justice,” a task force given the charge to work toward solutions to this incredibly difficult problem. Crimes against humanity are taking place, and even the buffoons in the Trump Administration had to act, even if it was nothing more than an attempt to lure Native American votes in advance of the election. It did not work. Just this week, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the formation of a special unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. to investigate crimes against Indigenous women. Native American women are murdered at a rate more than ten times the national average.
The national media widely reported on Haaland’s announcement, a refreshing change. More Americans are becoming aware of the pain and grief the #MMIW crisis is provoking in Native American communities, on reservations and off. As Connie Walker pointed out in an interview on NPR, “this issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls isn’t a new issue. This is something that has been going on for decades . . .centuries, even.” What has changed in recent past, Walker continued, is “there’s a growing awareness of this crisis, and there’s a growing awareness about the impacts of that violence on the lives of Indigenous women and girls.”
I worry that this crisis will not hold the attention of the American people for long. Solving this project is one that demands empathy and historical understanding. Both have been in remarkably short supply of late. There are no easy solutions, and it is difficult to truly discern the true scope of the problem. It has been going on for so long.
It was there at the inception. It was present when Christopher Columbus sailed into the Caribbean, his eyes scanning for those things that he hoped would make him a wealthy man. He found no gold, no silver, but he did see a young girl, swimming in the sea. “They should be good and intelligent servants, for I see that they say very quickly everything that is said to them; and I believe that they would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion.” In 1495, Columbus enslaved over 1600 Indians, and sent home to Spain “the best males and females.”
Columbus saw a girl,
Splashing in the waves.
He couldn’t find gold.
So he started taking slaves.
It never stops. It rings in your ears as you read this history. The Queen of Paspahegh, captured with her children by the English after they burned her town and wiped out the Algonquian soldiers who defended it. The English officer in charge allowed his men to throw the children into the James River, and to amuse themselves by blowing out their brains in the water. The Queen of Paspahegh, traumatized land grieving her murdered children like so many Indigenous women, was led away from the English fort and stabbed to death in the woods by an executioner too weary to burn her. Algonquian women who surrendered during King Philip’s War in New England, trafficked and sent to death in West Indian Slavery, or torn limb from limb by English dogs of war. The mutilation of Indigenous women’s bodies at Sand Creek and at other sites of genocidal violence. The story has not stopped. Indigenous women go missing, and they die.
Montana, where Jermain Charlo went missing, must be among the worst places for this. I lived for four years in Montana. I taught at Montana State University at Billings, in a hellhole of a history department. Students from the Crow Reservation were the largest minority on campus, and occasionally a faculty member let them know that they were an unwelcome minority as well. I think about some of the Indigenous women who took my classes there, and the struggles they confronted. I think of the casual racism I heard in Billings, on campus and off.
I think about my students in Geneseo as well. I imagine that many of them, when they lived at home, went out at night with their friends. Your parents are not idiots, I told them. They know you may be out having a good time. They know that sex and alcohol and drugs might be involved. They have to trust that you will make the right decisions. Even when we parents do not trust you to make the right decision, we have to, I said. You go out and you come home later than you said you would, and your parent might be angry, they might ask you lots of questions, they will pester you. You might see this as the ultimate buzzkill, or as disrespectful. It might bother you that your parents do not seem to trust you, or that they worry so much. I have children, so I share with my students one thing I know for certain: that when you get out of your parents’ sight, they worry. When you are not where you said you would be when you said you would be there, no matter how old you are, they will worry because they are afraid. We are afraid. Really. Because there is nothing worse than thinking that something bad happened to your child, or that somebody hurt your child. So, imagine, I tell them, the scene in your house if you did not come home. Imagine the scene without you in it. Imagine your parents planning your funeral or, perhaps, for years wondering what happened to you. I think if you asked your parents, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to you?” they would say that something terrible happened to my child, or that someone hurt my child. I know I would say that. I ask my students to imagine what it would do to your parents to lose you.
Because all the evidence suggests that thousands of Indigenous families in Canada and the United States experience this “worst thing.” Savannah Grey Wind’s family, for instance. Savanna was eight months pregnant. Her neighbor in a Fargo apartment complex lured her inside, hit her on the head, and while she was still alive, ebbing in and out of consciousness, cut the baby out of her womb. Together, Brooke Crews, that neighbor, and her boyfriend, cleaned up the blood, disposed of the clothing, and wrapped up Savannah’s body in plastic sheeting before dumping her body in the river, where kayakers found her some time later. They attempted to raise the baby as their own, before the authorities arrested them. The baby is how with her father.
Or Mildred Old Crow, who disappeared in November of 2020. She was eight years old. Her body was found in February of 2021. Her guardians had been charged in tribal court for endangering the welfare of a minor. Eight years old. Native Americans make up 7% of Montana’s population, according to one set of figures, but they comprise a full 25% of the missing persons in the state. In February of this year, accordig to another source, there were 167 active missing persons cases in Montana. 53 of them, or 31%, were indigenous.
Just a month before the discovery of Mildred’s body, authorities found the body of Selena Faye Not Afraid on the Crow Reservation. She was
sixteen. She died of hypothermia, exposure, after walking away from a broken down car. It was January in Montana. It was viciously cold. Why did she leave? What caused her to leave?
And Kaysera Stops Pretty in Places. She was eighteen, played basketball and ran cross-country. She performed in school plays at Hardin High School and wanted to act. She had been at a house party, but disappeared. She was found several days later, by a passerby, who discovered her body behind a woodpile in the backyard of a different house. Nobody knows how she got there, and her cause of death is “undetermined.”
It is difficult teaching this subject. Sometimes it can grind you down. It is difficult, I found, to listen to parts of Connie Walker’s podcast. This is an enormous problem, but I am a historian. Nothing is inevitable, I tell my students. Every things has causes. This is not a force of nature or an act of God. These are criminal acts by individuals committed against Indigenous women and girls. It does not have to be this way. At least, that is what I believe. Why are so many Native American women and girls missing? Though there is still by all accounts a shortage of evidence as to the scope of problem, everyone acknowledges that the problem is substantial. It is causing devastation and grief. You can read the tributes on Selena’s page at the Dahl Funeral Chapel. You can listen to the voices of Jermain Charlo’s friends and family members in “Stolen.” It is right before your eyes. The government has slowly started to respond.
Were these young women white, and had they disappeared from the suburbs, this problem would already have been solved. It only gets us so far to point out that truth. These are often crimes committed on the margins, on remote reservations or in American cities where, if you want, you can feel as isolated and alone as if you were walking in the woods. None of them disappear without a trace. There are clues, incomplete, but enough of the picture is complete to suggest that a solution to the puzzle is near. And there are the people left behind: Jermain had two children, but also the sisters, friends, parents and relatives, concentric circles of grief, radiating outward like ripples on the surface of a pond.
At a listening session yesterday, the Trump Administration unsurprisingly demonstrated that its real commitment to the issue is shallow and so limited as to be effectively meaningless. As Native Americans who attended the session yesterday pointed out, the President’s approval of pipe lines and other projects brings large numbers of non-native “man camps” into areas close to many Native American communities. Many observers have asserted that a relationship exists between such projects and reports of missing and murdered Native American women and girls. Indeed, Kristin Welch, a community organizer for Menikanaehkem, a Wisconsin group, asserted that cases of violence against Native American women are increased 70% by the presence of these man camps.
Task Force members repeatedly ignored these questions. When asked about the 1978 Oliphant decision, which held that non-Indians can not be held criminally liable for their actions on Indian land by tribal authorities, Task Force Member Marcia Good said that “Oliphant is currently beyond the scope of [Operation Lady Justice] at this time.”
Without restoring power to Native nations to allow them to prosecute the crimes non-Indians commit against Native American women, the Trump Administration has removed from the table what all experts assert is a vital part of any solution to this heart-wrenching problem. President Trump, in other words, supports policies that threaten to exacerbate the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women while permitting no discussion of a critical part of the solution. The Trump Administration is interested only in the appearance of action, except when it chooses to behave in a destructive manner.
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.
A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History