Sen. Luján makes up for Missing Murdered Indigenous Women gaffe
After stroke, U.S. senator shows strength as major MMIW ally. BIA must do better, he says.
WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) is making up big time for grievances that he left unseasoned staff to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit (MMIW) crisis.
Case in point: At a roundtable hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 18, Luján pressed Jason O'Neal, director of the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) Office of Justice Services, on why the BIA only lists 13 open MMIW cases on its website, while the U.S. Department of Justice’s website lists 48.
Luján further noted that that over 9,500 missing Indigenous peoples are logged in the most recent FBI National Crime Information Center's (NCIC) Missing Person and Unidentified Person Files report. They are not listed in either the aforementioned BIA or the Justice databases.
“Why are there so few cases in both databases?” Luján pointedly asked O'Neal.
“While I can’t answer for the FBI, I can tell you that the BIA did collaborate with the FBI during the development of our…website. Their’s, of course, was up and operational long before ours, and one of our joint goals was to make sure that we weren’t duplicating efforts,” O’Neal said.
In short, the BIA wanted to list only cases that its missing and murdered unit had reviewed, O'Neal said.
“We’re opening active investigations, or re-opening investigations that were unresolved.”
“Shortly after the launch of our website, one of our critical employees who was responsible for data entry accepted a position with another federal agency, and just this past month, we’ve re-hired a new employee. That employee is being trained up to not only resume adding case information or exisiting cases on that website, but also to add the additional cases that our missing and murdered unit is engaged in right now.”
The new employee came on board two weeks ago.
Between the lines: As noted time and again by tribes and U.S. Interior Department employees themselves, the agency is vastly understaffed, and the White House expects it to do increasingly more work for other federal agencies. The mission of Interior is getting shortchanged, and thus so are tribes and Indigenous citizens. The administration, too, ends up looking bad on a key issue that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has taken up.
Luján drove the point home by noting that if one adds the 13 listed BIA cases to the 48 cases listed by Justice, that equals 61 — far short of the 9,500 missing Indigenous peoples logged in the FBI National Crime Information Center's (NCIC) Missing Person and Unidentified Person Files.
“It’s been 13 cases for some time [on your website],” the senator said. “It’s something that my office is monitoring.”
“The goal of all of us is to bring more attention here,” Luján continued. “Undermining this is going to show that, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ve got it under control — no one needs to do anything.’ And that’s terribly wrong, so I’m hoping that there will be more attention on this and priority and really more than one staffer on this who will have the responsibility of maintaining [this] to get it up to speed.”
Navajo Nation council delegate and chair of the tribe’s Law and Order Committee Eugenia Charles-Newton told O’Neal during the hearing that another problem is that when people are over 18, they are sometimes not listed as missing by the BIA and/or by Justice.
“We have run into that issue a number of times here on the Navajo Nation where families have reported individuals as missing, but they’ve only been told that they’re not missing…,” she said.
Previously: Luján’s knowledgeable spotlight here on one important, data-based facet of the MMIW crisis was a 180-degree turn from earlier this year when his staffers were asking for MMIW-related questions from Native advocates for a hearing focused on the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
As Indigenous Wire previously reported, Alanna Purdy Montesinos, a staffer for the senator, had been reaching out to Native advocacy organizations asking whether there were any topical MMIW questions her boss might ask at the February NAGPRA hearing.
MMIW is a very different issue than NAGPRA, so advocates were left wondering if the senator and his staff really understood these topics.
Luján ended up suffering a stroke around the same time this was all happening, so he didn’t attend the hearing in question. He has since made a strong recovery, and it looks like he has a firm grasp of the importance of MMIW issues, advocates say. They also look forward to seeing the BIA sensibly update its website.
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