In November 2019, with Indigenous supporters by his side, President Donald Trump signed an executive order touted as a solution to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and people. One of the objectives assigned to the task force was to “develop model protocols and procedures to apply to new and unsolved cases of missing or murdered persons in American Indian and Alaska Native communities,” which includes improving the way investigators and prosecutors respond to such cases. There have been mixed reactions among Indigenous people in America. The Crow Tribe in Montana has offered its endorsement of the Trump administration following the executive order, while many activists who were previously working to pass bills addressing the crisis say the task force does little to effect serious change. This task force was expected to be made up of current federal employees, co-chaired by the attorney general and secretary of the interior. The ceremonial signing was completed in the Oval Office with various tribal leaders, but the planned federal task force is just the latest in a string of high-profile promises of law enforcement coordination to find solutions. Task forces have been announced before, but what happens on the ground when media cameras are focused elsewhere suggests we have little reason to hope their work will stem the tide of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
When 16-year-old Selena Not Afraid went missing in Montana on New Year’s Day of this year, several members of her family and community began looking for help from both state and federal task forces. It became clear early on that neither were anywhere near equipped to operate as intended.Two months before Trump’s executive order, Montana’s justice department hired two missing persons specialists—positions created after the state’s legislature passed Hanna’s Act, a bill aimed at improving coordination between agencies handling cases of missing Indigenous populations in part by updating missing persons databases. These new positions would make up the state’s task force on missing and murdered Indigenous people. Misty LaPlante—an experienced law enforcement officer and member of the Blackfeet Nation Indian Reservation—was one of the hires, per media reports. According to Not Afraid’s aunt Cheryl Horn, contacting the Montana task force was frustrating and added further stress to the family’s ordeal because it was unreachable. The task force finally contacted Horn more than two weeks after Not Afraid’s disappearance, but Horn says the official “had attitude” and accused Horn of failing to return a text message while the family was actively searching.
“I don’t understand how calling a family just to see if they’re okay isn’t a starting point,” says Horn.
Horn says she also reached out to officials within the federal missing and murdered Indigenous women task force, but was met with a brick wall. She adds that it wasn’t all for nothing, because shortly after reaching out, the FBI deployed its task force to search for Not Afraid. The family received support from Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who subsequently released a statement urging FBI Director Christopher Wray to prioritize Not Afraid’s disappearance. Facing backlash from Indigenous communities over perceived inaction at the state level, LaPlante released a statement through her Facebook page: “I will not be responding to any messages regarding my job or missing person cases via social media,” LaPlante wrote. She added her contact information and urged users to contact her, saying she’s “always available and will respond to inquiries in a professional manner.” However, when contacted directly through these channels, LaPlante wouldn’t respond to questions. Instead, she gave phone number contacts for the Montana Department of Justice’s communications department. Prism reached out through those official channels too, but still received no response.
While prioritizing missing persons databases is important for any agency actively working to improve law enforcement response to missing Indigenous people, connecting with families regardless of whether tangible resources are available is also paramount. On the 18th day of her disappearance, Not Afraid’s body was found just one mile from where she disappeared. Her family is far from alone. Last year, Kaysera Stops Pretty Places was found dead under suspicious circumstances in Hardin, Montana, and her family has yet to learn details, including her cause of death. Her aunt, Melissa Lonebear, says their family also hasn’t had any success reaching members of either the Montana or the federal task force.
Following Trump’s executive order for “Operation Lady Justice,” U.S. Attorney General William Barr released a statement pledging to allocate $1.5 million for the creation of 11 missing and murdered Indigenous person coordinators in 11 states. While many praised the executive order for its intent, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) pointed out that, “It fails to include the voices of local and tribal law enforcement, tribal leadership, survivors, and victim’s families on the task force, and fails to make implementation mandatory, which contradicts the entire purpose of a plan like this.” Haaland introduced the Not Invisible Act last year, which would “establish an advisory committee on violent crime comprised of law enforcement, tribal leaders, federal partners, service partners, service providers, and survivors to make recommendations to the Department of the Interior and Department of Justice.” Until specific legislation is passed, Trump’s executive order is just another photo op. His task force doesn’t even have authorization to operate past two years, as is specified in section six of the executive order.
Without clear guidance and implementation of policy, families of victims are left to grieve, search and advocate for their loved ones. Activists can rally support for Indigenous communities, but their voices only go so far. The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and people is not a trendy political aspiration. Lives are depending on legislation, law enforcement coordination, and resources or nothing will improve for affected communities.