A year after Mary Johnson’s disappearance, federal officials are finally acting on America’s missing Indigenous people crisis
Johnson, then 39 years old and an enrolled citizen of the Tulalip Tribes, was last seen on the reservation on November 25, 2020.
“At this point, we’re information-driven, any information we get is followed up on, but leads are harder and harder to find as we get further along,” said Wayne Schakel, a detective sergeant with the Tulalip Tribal Police Department.
For years, families and activists have demanded that authorities direct more attention and resources to cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women, arguing their cases are often overlooked or dismissed. Federal and state officials have recently publicly acknowledged that there is a “crisis of violence” against Native Americans, and have launched efforts to address it, but advocates say their response is not enough.
“For far too long, justice has been elusive for many Native American victims, survivors, and families. Criminal jurisdiction complexities and resource constraints have left many injustices unaddressed,” Biden said in the order.
The President also said, “previous executive action has not achieved changes sufficient to reverse the epidemic.”
Advocates and experts say those figures are not comprehensive, and a number of groups, like the Sovereign Bodies Institute, have taken it upon themselves to collect data as a way to raise awareness and hold law enforcement agencies accountable.
Lucchesi, who is a descendant of the Cheyenne Tribe, says a key issue fueling this crisis is the lack of empathy for victims from both community members and law enforcement.
“Families still have the same needs they had two years ago, five years ago. Law enforcement are still ignoring them. Cases are still going unsolved and violence continues to occur,” she said.
Federal officials are stepping up efforts
The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people is now under a spotlight, with federal officials announcing actions to bolster resources to address it.
The Department of Justice said on Tuesday it will be allocating $800,000 to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), to provide outreach, investigative support and forensic services to cases involving American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department will dedicate over $90 million in award grants to launch a committee dedicated to tackling the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous people.
“The Justice Department has already started piloting these plans, which are driven by community needs, led by Tribes and supported by federal law enforcement. It is our hope that we will advance meaningful responses to cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people and serve as a blueprint moving forward,” Garland said during the White House Tribal Nations Summit last week.
While there are four federal databases that include some information on missing and murdered Indigenous people, the report’s authors did not find comprehensive data on the crisis, which prevents federal officials from knowing the full extent of the problem.
In April, she announced the creation of a new unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to “help put the full weight of the federal government” to investigate the cases and coordinate resources among federal agencies and Indian country.
At the state level, lawmakers in Arizona, Wisconsin, Utah and several other states have in the past three years launched task forces or created offices to fight crime against Native Americans.
The legislation was named after 29-year-old Ida Beard, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, who went missing in 2015 and has not been found.
Lucchesi and other advocates welcome the increased awareness about the problem but remain skeptical about whether their efforts will help overcome a myriad of challenges that families face when a loved one goes missing, including jurisdictional issues and bureaucracy that often slow down investigations.
“What’s the point of creating (new) initiatives to address this crisis when the laws they’ve already passed are not being implemented?” Lucchesi said.
CNN’s Christina Carrega contributed to this report.