Community , Legal

MMIW legislation stalls in Oklahoma legislature; advocates renew efforts

Brenda Golden knew exactly what help she wanted from federal officials when it comes to addressing the rate of missing and murdered Indigenous people: more voices to help spell it out to the Oklahoma legislature why there is a problem.

Four bills on the topic made it past the committee level in the House of Representatives, but none were signed into law during the pandemic-interrupted 2020 legislative session. Instead, requests for cultural sensitivity training from Golden and other advocates were largely ignored.

“We heard over and over during the legislative session: ‘Why do we want to treat these Native people differently or carve out special class for them,’” Golden said. “We want help to address thinking that we’re seeking preferential treatment.”     

The Muscogee (Creek) attorney was one of more than a dozen advocates, family members and tribal officials who addressed representatives of the Department of Justice’s Operation Lady Justice May 29 via web conference.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in November launching the inter-agency task force assigned to develop a response plan for the high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

Overseen by Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, the eight-member panel includes representatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the FBI and departments of Justice, Interior and Health and Human Services and is charged with delivering its findings within two years. The task force also includes Trent Shores, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma.

Along with establishing protocols and a cross-jurisdictional team to review cases, the task force is responsible for conducting tribal consultations and facilitating sharing resources, such as database access.

The task force was originally scheduled to conduct an in-person listening session at Tulsa’s River Spirit Casino in March. However, due to COVID-19, it and other sessions across the country were postponed and eventually moved online.

Nationally, homicide is the third leading cause of death among Native American women, trailing only cancer and heart disease. In 2016 alone, more than 5,700 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women and girls were reported to the National Crime Information Center.

According to data from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, more than half of all Native women nationally are subjected to physical intimate partner violence at some point in their lives and one-fifth have been stalked. Native women are also subjected to higher rates of interracial violence than other groups, with an estimated two-thirds of the sexual assaults against Native women committed by non-Native men.            

Although state level legislation stalled out and will have to start over in 2021, additional resources are coming to Oklahoma from the Department of Justice to expedite response times.

After the task force was created, the Department of Justice made an initial investment of $1.5 million to hire MMIP coordinators to work with U.S. Attorney’s Offices in 11 specific states, including Oklahoma.

Cherokee Nation citizen Patti Buhl was appointed to the role in early June. The Tahlequah resident has worked in law enforcement for 25 years, including stints with the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service and the head of the Northeastern State University Police Department.