ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday announced it will be funneling more resources toward addressing the alarming rate of disappearances and killings among Native Americans.
As part of a new outreach program, the agency will dispatch five attorneys and five coordinators to several regions around the country to help with investigations of unsolved cases and related crimes.
Their reach will span from New Mexico and Arizona to Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Michigan and Minnesota.
Attorney General Merrick Garland acknowledged that the crisis has shattered the lives of victims, their families and entire tribal communities.
"The Justice Department will continue to accelerate our efforts, in partnership with tribes, to keep their communities safe and pursue justice for American Indian and Alaska Native families,” Garland said in a statement.
The announcement came as a special commission gathered in Albuquerque for one of its final field hearings as it works to develop recommendations on improving the response from law enforcement and coordination within local, state, tribal and federal justice systems.
The commission started its meeting with a prayer and a moment of silence as four colorful skirts were displayed at the front of the room in honor of those who have gone missing or have been trafficked or killed.
Some commission members read the names of victims to be remembered, including Ashlynne Mike, an 11-year-old Navajo girl who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered in northwestern New Mexico in 2016.
With seemingly insurmountable jurisdictional challenges, members of the federal commission have a difficult task ahead. Over the next three days, they will be listening to more heartbreaking stories from Native American families who have had loved ones vanish or turn up dead.
The goals of the 37-member commission include tracking and reporting data on missing-person, homicide and human trafficking cases and increasing information sharing with tribal governments on violent crimes investigations and other prosecutions on Indian lands.
Aside from making recommendations to the Interior and Justice departments, the commission also is tasked with boosting resources for survivors and victims’ families, such as providing access to social workers and counselors.
Elizabeth Hidalgo Reese, a member of Nambé Pueblo and senior policy advisor for Native American affairs at the White House, acknowledged the emotional toll that comes from victims and families sharing their stories.
“We need to understand this problem from every angle, we need to explore every possible solution," she said at the start of Wednesday's hearing. “So we do need to hear from all of you.”
Leanne Guy, the founding executive director for the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition, was among the commissioners who said they repeatedly hear about frustrations that stem from families not having any communication with law enforcement about the status of their loved ones' cases.
Guy's sister-in-law, Laverda Sorrell, vanished more than 20 years ago. Her family has seen federal agents come and go and no new leads despite rewards being offered.
Guy, who is Navajo, said she's hopeful the recommendations that come from the commission's painstaking work will transcend politics and presidential administrations.
“How we put this together will be very, very critical,” she said. “We don't want it to just sit on the shelf. We're hoping this creates meaningful change because we've been dealing with this crisis forever. We need to figure out how to move forward."
Fellow commissioner Patricia Whitefoot of the Yakama Nation broke down in tears recounting the difficulties she had getting information about her sister's case over the decades. Daisy Mae Heath disappeared in 1987, and it wasn't until recently that DNA tests confirmed that remains found in a remote area of the reservation in 2008 were hers.
“It's difficult to say how angry you are about all of that and the anger that family members may carry,” Whitefoot said.
The state, federal and tribal law enforcement agents and lawmakers who made up the panels talked about challenges with recruiting, retention and funding. They also pointed to a lack of training when peppered with questions by the commission.
Commissioner Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who also serves on the Navajo Nation Council, said it's not only a law enforcement challenge but one that involves sustainable funding for public health services that could help prevent violence within communities.
“How do we provide those wrap-around services?" she asked the panelists. "These are very complicated questions that I'm asking you. But this is a complicated crisis.”