‘Suddenly I’m breathing’: hope as Haaland takes on crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans

For 30 long years, Ana White has been searching for her sister, Andrea “Chick” White. The then 22-year-old Native mother of four, along with an eight-month-old baby, had traveled to Eureka, California, in July 1991 for a court date, after an auto accident. She was spotted hitchhiking home along a freeway near Blue Lake, in northern California. She has been missing ever since.

White, who described her sister as a great mother and very giving person, has repeatedly prodded local law enforcement, who she said have largely given her “lip service”, and helped to spread awareness about the case through social media posts. But for three frustrating decades the situation has remained unchanged.

Now, after the secretary of the interior, Deb Haaland, announced the formation of a new unit to investigate the “epidemic” of missing and murdered Native Americans, she said she has suddenly found herself with a renewed sense of hope.

“It’s like, oh, suddenly I’m breathing. It’s like I’m being resuscitated,” said White, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. “If my feelings were to be visible, that’s what you’d see. Somehow, I’ve got this oxygen tank right here, and Deb Haaland put it on my side.”

Haaland, the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in US history, announced the formation of the Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs office of justice services earlier this month, just two weeks after being sworn in.

In a statement, Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, described the violence against Native people as a “crisis that has been underfunded for decades”.

“The new MMU unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families,” she said.

Activists and experts in the Native community told the Guardian that the formation of a unit poised to tackle this horrific epidemic of violence against Native people, especially women and girls, is an important and potentially game-changing development. But some also cautioned that this is also only the start of important work.

Roxanne White, a survivor of human trafficking, a family member of missing and murdered Indigenous people and an activist, said she was excited that Haaland has this position and is leading this work. But, she said, moving forward she would like to see there be a real collaboration between officials and families within the new unit.

“We are going to be the ones to guide this,” said White. “I really believe this, because we’re the ones that have been doing this work. We’ve been doing the searches; we’ve been the ones dealing with all of this stuff … The relationship between, you know, governmental, FBI, DoJ and families has to be stronger, and it has to be more meaningful and authentic.”

White said she would also like to see the unit go beyond cold cases and current investigations and actually help to prevent these horrific tragedies through trauma-informed, culturally based wraparound services, including housing and drug and alcohol treatment.

About 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native people across the US are listed as missing in the National Crime Information Center, while thousands of other cases of murder and non-negligent homicide have been reported to the federal government’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

In 2008, the justice department found that Native women on some tribal lands were murdered at more than 10 times the national average.

The new unit is expected to investigate unsolved cases as well as active missing and murdered investigations, and boost overall collaboration with such agencies as the FBI Forensic Laboratory and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

It is also expected to build on the work by Operation Lady Justice, a presidential taskforce launched in 2019 under the Trump administration to examine missing and murdered Native cases that has been criticized by some as being vague and uninformed. According to a statement out of the US Department of the Interior, the new effort “builds on that work by designating new leadership and support positions, including a unit chief responsible for stakeholder collaboration, continued policy development and overall performance of the unit”.

Sarah Deer, a distinguished professor at the University of Kansas, who has written extensively about violence against Native Americans, said there were still many unknowns in terms of what this new unit will actually look like. She said it was important to make sure it doesn’t become some kind of “one size fits all plan”.

“Oftentimes, the federal government and the federal courts tend to just lump us all into one category, when we have very, very, very small tribes and very, very large tribes, and the way that justice is going to be pursued in those kinds of differing tribes, we can’t have a one size fits all,” said Deer, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma.

Deborah Maytubee Shipman, the director and founder of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA, described Haaland as “our great hope”. She told the Guardian about the challenging experience of sitting down with a family whose 14-year-old daughter was found dead. When they went to identify her body, she had a severe head injury, said Maytubee Shipman. And yet no criminal charges were filed because officials determined she died of hypothermia.

“The thing is, that won’t be the last time, but I hope it’s coming – I don’t say hope, I know that she’s going to do everything she can to stop that,” said Maytubee Shipman, a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma.

For Ana White, who said she still believes her sister is alive, the new unit could mean her sister’s case will get a fresh look. She said she hoped the FBI would get involved and uncover important things local law enforcement agents missed.

“I believe that we’re going to take our case to them and they will come,” she said. “We’re going to be relentless on having Chick’s case looked at by them.”

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