ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — From the nation's capitol to Indigenous communities across the American Southwest, top government officials, family members and advocates are gathering Wednesday as part of a call to action to address the ongoing problem of violence against Indigenous women and children.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and other federal officials are expected to commemorate the annual day of awareness as a caravan of female motorcycle riders hits the streets in Phoenix, advocates take to social media, and families prepare for a night of candlelight and prayer vigils.
Haaland, the first Native American to lead a U.S. cabinet agency, called May 5 an unfortunate tradition.
The former Democratic U.S. representative from New Mexico remembers hearing families testify about searching for loved ones on their own and bringing clothing to congressional hearings that represented missing and slain Native Americans.
Haaland will display a red shawl on an empty chair in her office Wednesday to symbolize those who have disappeared and honor the movement that rang the alarm. She said she believes the nation has reached an inflection point.
"This year more than any, I feel we are ready to solve this crisis," she told reporters Tuesday. "Everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities, but the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples crisis is one that Native communities have faced since the dawn of colonization. For too long, this issue has been swept under the rug with the lack of urgency, attention and funding."
Haaland cited studies and federal statistics that show at least 1,500 Native Americans and Alaska Natives are missing and Native women are at an increased risk of violence.
Indigenous women have been victimized at astonishing rates, with federal figures showing that they — along with non-Hispanic Black women — have experienced the highest homicide rates. Yet an Associated Press investigation in 2018 found that nobody knows the precise number of cases of missing and murdered Native Americans nationwide because many go unreported, others aren't well documented, and no government database specifically tracks them.
Over the past year, advocacy groups report that cases of domestic violence against Indigenous women and children and instances of sexual assault increased as nonprofit groups and social workers scrambled to meet the added challenges that stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic.
President Joe Biden issued a proclamation Tuesday on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day. He has promised to bolster resources to address the crisis and better consult with tribes to hold perpetrators accountable and keep communities safe. Haaland said that includes more staffing in a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs unit dedicated to solving cold cases and coordinating with Mexico and Canada to combat human trafficking.
The administration's work will build on some of the initiatives started during former President Donald Trump's tenure. That included a task force made up of the Interior Department, the Justice Department and other federal agencies to address violent crime in Indian Country.
Advocates have said a lack of resources and complex jurisdictional issues have exacerbated efforts to locate those who are missing and solve other crimes in Indian Country. They also have pointed to the need for more culturally appropriate services.
Bryan Newland, principal assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department, said staffing at the Bureau of Indian Affairs unit will go from a team of 10 to more than 20 officers and special agents with administrative and support staff it previously didn't have.
He also said the federal government has started distributing funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, including $60 million for public safety and law enforcement in Indian Country.
"We're really looking to build upon many of the things that have been done, to expand them and bring focus to them," Newland said.
Haaland said success would be measured by solving cold cases.
"Right now there are people in this country who don't know where their loved ones are. They haven't been found," she said. "We want to be able to answer that question. We want to make sure that folks can have some closure about their missing loved ones."