Story at a glance
- The Trump administration launched a task force to combat the epidemic of missing and murdered Native American women.
- Called Operation Lady Justice, the task force consists of seven federal officials from various offices.
- The task force has ambitious organizational reforms in mind, but advocates are skeptical.
The Trump administration announced the first convening of a new task force dedicated to addressing the multiple outstanding cases of missing, murdered and assaulted Native Americans.
The task force, called “Operation Lady Justice,” is a joint effort between the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services, and is co-chaired by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Attorney General William Barr.
It will be further comprised of other officials with backgrounds and duties related to criminal justice and tribal government to empower “native communities with information.”
In a Jan. 29 press release, Bernhardt stated that “President Trump is committed to addressing systemic challenges in Indian Country, and this task force will develop and implement an aggressive, government-wide strategy to combat the crisis of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.”
Native American women face a staggering rate of violence of any type. According to the Indian Law Resource Center, more than 4 out of 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 women have experienced sexual assault or harassment.
The Indian Law Resource Center also cites the epidemic of missing Native American women, and says they cannot get a precise estimate due to an inadequate reporting system. The Urban Indian Health Institute published a report titled “Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls” and found that of 5,712 cases of missing or murdered American Indian or Alaskan Native heritage were reported in 2016, only 116 were entered into the Department of Justice’s database.
Operation Lady Justice aims to erode this trend by implementing a seemingly stronger bureaucratic framework. This includes establishing “a multi-disciplinary, multi-jurisdictional team, which will include tribal law enforcement, to review cold cases,” consulting with tribal governments, and developing presumably updated “model protocols and procedures for addressing both new and unsolved cases of missing and murdered persons in tribal communities,” along with other communication and awareness campaigns.
Advocates in the Native American community have doubts about the task force’s power. They point to the lack of representation on the task force itself, which is composed of officials from federal agencies, but no one from an indigenous American community.
Executive Director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute Annita Lucchesi told ABC News that it is “insensitive” to not include any indigenous survivors, families or tribal leaders on the task force.
Luchchesi, a Cheyenne descendant, also said that Operation Lady Justice’s goals are “too vague” to have an impact and that “it feels like a matter of convenience in an election year.”
One member of the task force, Tara Sweeney, identifies as a member of the Native Village of Barrow Traditional Iñupiat Government and Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope tribes. She is the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs.
According to ABC News, Sweeney is also a survivor of sexual assault.
The task force will deliver its first report in November 2020.