by Shondiin Silversmith, Arizona Mirror
March 9, 2023
For the first time in history, an Arizona governor signed an executive order to officially establish a task force focused on addressing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis.
“For too long, our state has ignored tribal leaders’ pleas for help addressing the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people,” Gov. Katie Hobbs said.
Hobbs signed the order on March 7. She was joined by Attorney General Kris Mayes, Sen. Theresa Hatathlie, Gila River Indian Community Lieutenant Governor Monica Antone, First Lady of the Navajo Nation Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, study committee members and advocates.
“This issue is extremely important to our tribal communities, who are relying on this work to be done,” Hatathlie said, adding how the previous study legislative committees did a lot of work over the last two years looking into the systems and structures that are failing Indigenous communities across the state.
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April Ignacio, who was part of those now-disbanded study committees and will work on Hobbs’ task force, said its creation through executive order is really exciting because it will be more hands-on work.
“It feels like we’re actually going to get some work done,” Ignacio said. ‘With this being a task force, (it) actually puts us in a position to see how this state is going to navigate through actionable items.”
“This has never been done here in Arizona,” she added.
The committee has been able to develop recommendations that would help better serve victims and communities impacted by MMP, Hatathlie said, and they looked at ways to fill the gaps that allow crimes against many vulnerable communities to go unprosecuted and without investigation.
“It is time to turn the recommendations of the bipartisan Study Committee on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People into action,” Hobbs said. “By establishing this task force on missing and murdered Indigenous people, we are taking the first of many steps to stop the abuse, exploitation, and violence against Indigenous people.”
The first study committee was established in 2019 through legislation, and the second was in 2022 when an interim study committee was authorized by Rusty Bowers, who was the Republican speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives at the time.
“It is time to turn the recommendations of the bipartisan study committee on missing and murdered Indigenous people into action,” Hobbs said. “By establishing this task force on missing and murdered Indigenous people, we are taking the first of many steps to stop the abuse, exploitation, and violence against Indigenous people.”
The MMIP interim committee held its last meeting in December 2022 and released a report of recommendations for the state on what is needed to address the MMIP crisis.
The committee divided its recommendations into nine key areas: legislative, administrative, Arizona victim compensation program, victim services, data improvement, resource allocation, training and education, collaborative and law enforcement. There are a total of 83 recommendations.
“This issue is as complex as it is heartbreaking,” Hobbs said. “This task force will bring together states and tribal leaders to find pathways to justice for the missing and murdered.”
“This step is one of many that my administration will be taking to stop the violence against tribal members,” Hobbs said. ”We will continue to work to deliver justice to the victims and their families and to ensure that not one more indigenous man, woman, or child is a target of violence, abuse, or exploitation.”
Hatathlie said one of the main objectives of the task force would be to work with law enforcement and tribal governments to continue to track and collect data on violence against Indigenous people.
The task force will also propose legislation to address issues identified by the study committee and current task force, Hatathlie said. They will submit a report on an annual basis to the governor and legislative leaders, and provide copies of the reports of the Secretary of State.
The study committee issued its first report in 2020, and it found that 160 murders of Indigenous women were recorded in Arizona from 1976 to 2018 — and that murders among Indigenous women and girls have steadily increased over the last 40 years. The study committee continues its partnership with ASU as the lab continues its research into MMIP.
An Arizona Mirror analysis of the sparse available data on MMIP cases found that more than 25% of murders involving Indigenous women in Arizona go unsolved. Additionally, the Murder Accountability Project found that one in three murders of Native Americans in Arizona goes unreported to the FBI.
A 2017 study from the Urban Indian Health Institute found that Arizona has the third-highest number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in the country. That study reported a total of 506 known cases in 71 urban cities across the country and 54 cases were identified in Arizona, including 31 in Tucson.
In some tribal communities, women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In 2017, homicide was reported as the fourth-leading cause of death among Indigenous women under the age of 19 and the sixth-leading cause of death for ages 20 to 44, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.
And the National Institute of Justice found that 84% of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime, compared to 71% of white women.
Hatathlie said the task force’s success means continuing to work that has already been set in place but also finding new ways to support that work through legislation and funding.
For instance, Hatathlie said through their recent work, they were able to secure $2 million in funding to establish a missing and murdered indigenous peoples unit with the attorney general’s office.
Mayes said that they’re hoping to hire an additional prosecutor and additional investigator as part of the unit through this funding.
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