WASHINGTON - Native Americans are taking a wait-and-see approach to a new White House task force charged with boosting the physical safety of indigenous people at a time when American Indian and Alaska Native women face elevated risks of going missing or being murdered.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week establishing Operation Lady Justice, a working party of eight officials from the FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the departments of Interior, Justice, and Health and Human Services. Attorney General William Barr and Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt will head the task force.
"We will leverage every resource we have to bring safety to our tribal communities, and we will not waver in this mission," Trump said during an Oval Office signing ceremony Tuesday, Nov. 26.
The order comes in the wake of an announcement Barr made during a recent trip to Montana, where he said the government will commit $1.5 million to hire coordinators in 11 states where the crisis is most pressing. Among other goals, they will work to systemize the way tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement report and manage missing and murdered (MMIW) cases.
Joining Trump in his announcement were Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer and Second Lady Dottie Lizer; Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin; Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairman Kevin DuPuis; and Crow Chairman Alvin "A.J." Not Afraid Jr. - all of whom thanked the president.
"I commend President Trump and his administration for recognizing the traumatic epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous relatives," Lizer said. "Throughout our tribal nations, we hear far too many stories of families, victims, and survivors, so we need to keep our sacred women and children safe and protected."
Not Afraid Jr. welcomed White House support in addressing the problem.
"Nation to nation, I thank him for placing a spotlight on those we have lost, recognizing that losing one more child, one more person, is one too many," he said.
But other prominent Native voices have been critical. Democratic Congresswoman Deb Holland of New Mexico, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, called the funding inadequate.
"The DOJ's plan reflects a lack of consultation with Tribes, which is a pattern of this Administration on all Indian Country issues," she said in a statement released last week.
Suzan Harjo, Hodulgee Muscogee and a member of the Cheyenne tribe, is a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and lifelong champion of Native rights. She told VOA the task force - consisting entirely of federal officials - coopts the efforts of Native MMIW activists at the tribal, community or state level.
Harjo said she believes the task force is an effort to claim the MMIW issue and take it away from Democrats during long-stalled efforts to renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which expired in February.
Last April, the House passed a version of VAWA that would block people convicted of stalking or abusing partners from buying guns, a provision strongly opposed by Senate Republicans, who have blocked voting on the bill.
"In this case, the President's GOP women and men in the Senate were not going to allow enactment of the substantive legislation," Harjo said via Facebook. "And the Trump 2020 campaign wanted to claim an issue and take it away from the Democrats in the Senate and in the 2020 race - so the Task Force seems to be the best route to make any advance in the issue and to tie the controlling party to the outcomes of its own process."
For their part, Senate Republicans say Democrats' favored version of VAWA has no chance of becoming law in a politically divided Washington.
"No survivors are helped by a bill (that isn't signed into law)," Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said last month. "The Senate Democrats' bill is a non-starter. It won't pass the Senate. It won't get the president's signature."
Speaking out online
VOA reached out to MMIW Facebook groups for comment on the White House task force. Responses were overwhelmingly negative.
"If he (Trump) wanted to help, he should have moved VAWA reauthorization through," one user wrote.
"Trump has made it very clear how he feels and what he thinks when it comes to Natives, from his Congressional testimony concerning Native casinos in 1993 to his Executive Order on the Dakota Access Pipeline," said Jackson Wyatt, a member of the Cree Nation, living in Astoria, Oregon. "There will be a shoe that drops (consequences) on Natives at some point."
A member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana who asked not to be identified told VOA, "It is merely a ploy for votes. One and a half million (dollars) will last about a year for staffing, nothing long-term."
Others stated concerns that the task force focuses on reservations to the exclusion of urban Native American populations. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, 70% of Alaska Natives live in urban areas, where women not only go missing but are underreported by municipal police agencies and all too often ignored by local media.
That said, a few Facebook users see Operation Lady Justice as a good start that will help the general public. understand the full extent of the crisis.
"No matter who signed it, no matter how little or how much it covers, no matter it's somebody that's liked or not liked, be glad there is something pointed at a positive direction," one Facebook user posted on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives No Borders Facebook page. "It may help stop the gap that has been between the indigenous peoples and local law. It's a start."