A new federal task force formed to address high rates of missing and murdered indigenous people met in Washington, D.C. for the first time Jan. 29.
A recent Montana case highlights its limitations.
At the signing of his executive order to establish Operation Lady Justice last fall, President Donald Trump said the task force would bring new hope to Indian Country.
“We will deliver justice to the family, closure for the family and safety for those in harm's way,” the president said.
It’s stated goals are to break down jurisdictional barriers and develop a government-wide strategy. It proposes a public awareness effort and a series of grants to improve safety in Native American communities.
But that mission is complicated by the fact that sometimes indigenous women go missing off of tribal lands, where federal authorities don’t always have jurisdiction.
Outside of reservations, city or county police tend to lead investigations of missing or murdered indigenous women. That sometimes means that law enforcement agencies with historically fraught relationships with tribes are in charge of investigating missing tribal members.
U.S. Attorney for Montana Kurt Alme said it’d require a sea change for federal investigators to gain control of cases outside of reservation boundaries.
“That would require an act of Congress to change that jurisdiction,” Alme said.
Federal authorities can offer assistance in cases like that of Selena Not Afraid, a 16-year-old Crow girl who went missing from an Interstate-90 rest stop between Billings and Hardin on New Year’s Day. She was found 19 days later less than a mile from where she was last seen and classified as having died of hypothermia.
Other cases include Kaysera Stops Pretty Places and Allison Highwolf, two Native American women who also died off of reservations in Big Horn County under circumstances that some activists consider suspicious.
Alme says in cases like Not Afraid’s, local agencies like county sheriff offices typically lead investigations while federal agents assist.
“The FBI was able to provide it’s child abduction response team to come in and help and both FBI and other Department of Interior specialized groups came in to assist in the search, so they can provide assistance but they aren’t the lead in the investigation,” he said.
Alme said it’s not a shortcoming of the justice system that his office doesn’t have jurisdiction off reservations.
“We have very competent police departments across the state, as well as the State Division of Criminal Investigation and Highway Patrol,” Alme said.
The Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office did call in the state Division of Criminal Investigation earlier this week. It’s something some Not Afraid relatives and the Chairman of the Crow Nation were pushing for but under state law that couldn’t happen until law enforcement officially requested it.
The federal Operation Lady Justice task force will submit a progress report to the president next November. The group will host its first listening session next month with the National Congress of American Indians in Washington D.C. .
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.