Two U.P. tribes roll out gender-inclusive response to missing, murdered Indigenous people

Activists march for missing and murdered Indigenous women at the Women's March California 2019 in Los Angeles. | Sarah Morris/Getty Images

Two tribes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula came together this week to introduce new, gender-inclusive tribal response plans for the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

United Three Fires advocates photo

The pilot plan, announced by the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians and Bay Mills Indian Community (BMIC) on Tuesday at the Kewadin Casino’s Dream Makers Theater in Sault Ste. Marie, extends the response plans from focusing just on Indigenous women and girls to addressing missing and murdered tribal citizens of all genders.

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Debra Haaland, the first Indigenous person to lead the agency, appeared via video message to voice her support for the pilot program. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) also sent in supportive video messages about the plan, which is part of a U.S. Department of Justice pilot program.

Last month, Haaland announced the creation of a unit within her department to aid investigations into murdered and missing American Indian and Alaska Native people. The new Missing and Murdered Unit is housed within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.

“Today, we collectively commit to ensuring equality in our responses to violence committed against all genders. We will no longer promote gender stereotypes,” said Jami Moran, program services director for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe’s Advocacy Resource Center.

Native Americans face disproportionately higher rates of murder, violence and sex trafficking. Prosecuting crimes committed against Indigenous people is also a unique challenge because of a variety of factors including complex jurisdictional issues, certain laws prohibiting tribal courts from prosecuting non-Native perpetrators and more.

New unit launched at Interior to investigate cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people

“Victims of violence matter. It doesn’t matter the situation that puts them at risk but they matter,” said Sault Ste Marie Tribe Chair Aaron Payment. “It’s important to say their name. They are real, living, breathing people. They are someone’s sister, auntie or grandmother or brother or someone transitioning.

“They deserve our love and respect, not our judgment,” Payment continued. He said that the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) tribal response plan is the most comprehensive so far and encouraged other tribes to use it as a template for their own.

The plan includes a central database among all local, state and federal jurisdictions to help with expedient data collection, along with expanded resources to help law enforcement conduct objective, evidence-based investigations that are “free of bias.”

The resources also include culture-honoring victim services, public communications and proactive community outreach partnerships.

“We cannot allow these cases to continue to go unresolved, unsolved and unaddressed, leaving our families and communities devastated with a piece of themselves missing,” said BMIC President Whitney Gravelle.  

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