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After papal apology in Canada, U.S. sets sights on missing, murdered Indigenous women

WASHINGTON — There is a long-standing intergenerational link between the dark North American legacy of abuse in residential schools and the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland listens during ceremonies before a meeting to hear about the painful experiences of Native Americans who were sent to government-backed boarding schools designed to strip them of their cultural identities Saturday, July 9, 2022 in Anadarko, Okla. The president of the National Congress of American Indians says Canada's progress on Indigenous issues is helping to push the United States in the same direction. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Sue Ogrocki

WASHINGTON — There is a long-standing intergenerational link between the dark North American legacy of abuse in residential schools and the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

These days, champions of Indigenous justice are seeing a new, more positive connection: a growing push in the United States to confront the latter, much in the way the Canadian experience has recently been doing for the former. 

"Are developments in Canada really helping to influence our progress here in the United States? I can say, 'Absolutely,'" said Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

The U.S. has in recent months become newly focused on injustices against Indigenous Peoples that have been making headlines in Canada for years — a shift catalyzed by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo tribe.

Last June, Haaland cited the recent location of what are believed to be unmarked graves at a former residential school in B.C. as she launched a comprehensive investigation of the history of a similar boarding-school system in the U.S. 

That effort found marked and unmarked burial sites at the locations of 53 former U.S. schools, and estimated at least 500 students died at 19 of 408 federally supported sites identified to date — numbers that are likely to grow as the investigation continues.

Canada's own pursuit of truth and reconciliation ledlast weektoa visit from Pope Francis that included an apology for the Catholic Church's role in operating residential schools, a "penitential pilgrimage" that received prominent coverage in the U.S. 

Now, America's first-ever Indigenous cabinet secretary is setting her sights on another deep-seated injustice in what's known in the U.S. as Indian Country: a disproportionately high rate of killings and disappearances.

The Centers for Disease Control says murder is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women, and that those living on reservations in the U.S. face a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average, as well as an elevated risk of sexual assault. 

"I wish we didn't need to be here. I wish that this day was obsolete," Haaland said earlier this year at an event marking a national day of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous people.

She used the occasion to promote the new Not Invisible Act Commission, a 37-member panel comprising law enforcement, advocates and government officials, as well as survivors of violence and impacted family members. 

Their role is to better connect Interior with the U.S. Justice Department for improved investigation and enforcement, lobby for additional federal resources for survivors and families and examine the root causes of the missing and murdered "epidemic."

"For too long, this issue has been swept under the rug by our government with a lack of urgency, attention and funding," Haaland said in announcing the commission's new members. 

"The rates of missing-persons cases and violence against American Indian, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian communities are disproportionate, alarming and unacceptable."

Haaland's advocacy, combined with growing cross-border efforts among First Nations and Indigenous groups in the U.S. to make people more aware of the imbalance, are helping to create the political will necessary for action, Sharp said. 

"That's absolutely an issue that I think the public is becoming more aware of, and with our collective efforts all across North America, we're able to share stories to elevate and amplify each other's voices."

Sharp took part in a trilateral meeting at the White House last month with female Indigenous leaders as well as emissaries from all three countries, and said she was struck by how all of them are facing similar challenges and administrative hurdles. 

"We're finding all of these different connections to the issues that we're all confronting — issues that formerly we did in sort of a North American silo, we're now doing collectively, which is incredible." 

The exposure of the residential-school saga in Canada has given new prominence to the impact of the untold abuses and injustices exacted on Indigenous Peoples for centuries on their modern-day experiences.

That could also go a long way toward explaining why Indigenous women are overrepresented among the missing and murdered, said Maka Black Elk, the executive director for truth and healing at the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, S.D. 

"The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and others is not disconnected from the history that also produced the residential and boarding schools," Black Elk said.

"It's all rooted in a dehumanization and a lack of dignity that is recognized in native people."

Domestic violence and killings within Indigenous communities are a source of some of the violence, he added. 

In April, Haaland announced a new "Missing and Murdered Unit" within her department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, the goal being to help law enforcement departments and agencies work together on unsolved cases, backed by "the full weight of the federal government."

Some 2,700 unsolved killings of Indigenous people and 1,500 missing-persons cases have been logged into U.S. crime databases, but the true numbers are likely far higher. In 2016, despite more than 5,700 reports of missing Indigenous women and girls logged by the U.S. Justice Department, only 116 had been registered with a national missing-persons database known as NamUs. 

Sharp said the new commission Haaland announced earlier this year will be central to the primary challenge: extracting the necessary resources from a government that has long been reticent to spend the money required for effective and co-ordinated investigation and enforcement. 

She cited a 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that found funding for tribal nations and Indigenous programs in just about every department and agency to be "grossly inadequate to meet the most basic needs the federal government is obligated to provide."

"In some areas, we're so far on the low end, we're not even on the fair market value scale," Sharp said. 

"This commission will be able to do the fact-finding and provide reports that will enable us to continue to do our advocacy to try to increase funding for law enforcement." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press