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Biden taking long-overdue steps to reverse neglect of Indigenous people

Andrew Harnik / AP

Wolf Ramerez of Houston, center, joins others with the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas in holding up his fists as Indigenous and environmental activists protest in front of the White House in Washington, Oct. 11, 2021. President Joe Biden has announced steps to improve public safety and justice for Native Americans.

By launching a coordinated effort to step up law enforcement on Native American tribal lands and improve justice for Indigenous peoples in the United States, the Biden administration took an important and long overdue step.

The new strategy calls for the departments of Justice, Interior, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services to work with tribal communities to improve public safety among Native populations. In addition, the Interior and Justice departments were directed to analyze crime and missing persons data on reservations and in urban tribal communities to address the epidemic of missing or murdered Indigenous women.

This is a solid-looking framework for curbing crimes against American Indians and Alaska natives, who are 2.5 times as likely as members of all other ethnicities to be victimized in violent crimes. Native women are particularly vulnerable to predatory behavior — murder rates of Indigenous women are up to 10 times higher than the national average in some counties, and federal authorities say more than a third of Native women have been raped. Indigenous women also make up 40% of the victims of sex trafficking identified in the U.S. and Canada.

And experts say the numbers are likely much higher, as violence against Native American women tends to be underreported.

It’s appalling that the federal government has done so little to this point to fight these crimes and provide tribal law enforcement authorities with the resources and partnership they need to adequately protect their communities.

Congress has taken some action in recent years, such as passing legislation to enhance investigation of cold cases involving Indigenous women and improve responses to crimes in which those women are victimized. That legislation was known as Savannah’s Act, named after a Native American woman who was murdered in 2017 by an assailant who cut her unborn baby from her womb.

But the congressional efforts have done little to curb the crime rate. And with the Trump administration largely treating Native Americans neglectfully or with open hostility, the Biden administration was under well-justified pressure to act. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., voiced this sentiment last month when he sharply criticized U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on the issue during a congressional hearing.

“It does not appear that you have used your platform to help make this a top priority, nor has the Department of Justice really moved the needle on this issue since your confirmation,” Stanton told Garland.

Stanton wasn’t alone in his criticism of Garland and his department. A Government Accountability Office report on missing and murdered Native American women and men of all ages found the Justice Department lacking in efforts to investigate cold cases and fulfill the directives of such congressional legislation as Savannah’s Act.

Something finally got Garland’s attention, because two weeks after Stanton’s remarks he was standing alongside President Joe Biden as Biden signed the executive order initiating the effort. Under the order, federal officials have eight months to develop a detailed strategy to curb violence in Native communities.

In addition, Biden announced he would push Congress to allow tribes to prosecute non-Native offenders accused of several specific offenses against Indigenous people, including sexual assault and trafficking. Currently, federal courts are responsible for trying most crimes involving non-Native offenders due to federally imposed restrictions on tribal jurisdiction. Another element of the effort orders 17 federal departments and agencies to collectively focus on protecting treaty rights held by the 574 tribes recognized by the federal government. And in a significant gesture of support for Native American communities, Biden announced he would ban oil and gas drilling near Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, which Indigenous communities had been working to protect.

“Today’s actions by the president demonstrate a welcome and dramatic change in attitude toward the Indigenous people of this country,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., in a statement. “After four years of being ignored and witnessing sacred sites being desecrated, it is reassuring to see President Biden moving forward with the promises to Indian Country he campaigned on by acting to protect the sacred site of Chaco Canyon, as well as prioritizing the safety of Indigenous women and girls. Today’s executive actions are a promising foundation to build a new standard for dialogue between tribal nations and the federal government.”

Now, though, Biden must succeed in an area where the federal government has an appalling history — following through on promises and commitments to Native Americans. Signing a piece of paper is easy, but making sure the government puts words into actions is where Biden will be judged.

But at least a commitment has been made. And with a team that includes Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American chosen for that position, there’s hope that this will be a rare instance when the federal government does the right thing for Indigenous communities.

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