Saturday, September 23, 2023
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls March in Riverton in Late May was led by participants following a "Justice" Banner. Over 50 showed up to give their support to the march. Carl Cote photo

MMIW Seminar: ‘If you want to get away with murder’

In 2021, United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland launched a new Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services (BIA-OJS). The unit, which in 2022 consisted of 32 full-time employees nationwide, has since established offices in 11 states and, according to Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Wizipan Garriott, worked to close over 270 cases. 

“We have a vast variety of professionals who contribute when we investigate,” said Unit Chief Marcelino ToersBijns during a recent MMU public meeting held to help educate people about the unit. “This is the most engaged and heartfelt team that I have ever worked with.”

ToersBijns noted that in order to investigate these cases and offer assistance to local law enforcement, MMU often has to navigate complex questions of jurisdiction, sometimes only being able to help with a situation after it has been invited by the relevant tribe or other law enforcement agency. This issue of jurisdiction and its impact on cases was precisely one of the topics most heavily criticized at the Wyoming Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples (MMIP) Task Force’s community engagement meeting in Riverton this May. 

“There’s a sense of lawlessness here, so people are going to do things knowing that they can get away with it,” noted Sunny Goggles-Duran. “We’re losing our people, we haven’t had a significant drug bust since 2005 … People are dying left and right, being found at the river, and nobody’s doing anything about it.” 

“One thing that’s really disheartening here … is just the incredible energy leak that comes from all the infighting between agencies,” added another commenter. “I have never seen anything like it.”

The issues associated with jurisdiction were also raised by those who attended the MMU national online meeting, both in the chat during the webinar and in the question and answer session afterward.

“My family is discouraged. When my cousin Emmilee Risling went missing on the Yurok reservation in far northern California all law enforcement entities (tribal, local sheriff and feds) [kept] saying they couldn’t do more in searching and investigating until they got asked/permission from other entities. The sheriff can’t do anything unless the Tribe asked/gave permission, the Feds couldn’t do anything until the sheriff asked, the Tribe’s hands were tied until they got permission from the Feds. Our family felt like we just [got] the runaround,” said Viola Brooks. Another attendee, Aaron Chuette, asked about Mika Westwolf, who was struck by a vehicle and killed on the Flathead Reservation in Montana but whose death was being investigated by the Montana State Highway Patrol rather than the BIA or tribal police. 

According to ToersBijns, one way MMU has approached these jurisdictional issues is by being conscientious about offering assistance to tribal, state, and local authorities rather than trying to take over the case. It is also looking into establishing task forces to work with states and various law enforcement agencies to try to increase collaboration.

“We work cases both on and off reservation. Sometimes, for the off-reservation cases [our] hands are somewhat tied because the state or local authorities may have primary jurisdiction over the case. We offer our assistance to state and local authorities and work with them. Surprisingly, we have access to some resources that state and local [agencies] don’t have – for example, with evidentiary matters and forensics,” explained MMU Deputy Unit Chief Travis Trueblood. 

MMU has contracted with a crime lab, and ToersBijns said that it is usually happy to offer those services to any law enforcement agency that wants or needs them in order to solve a relevant case. Other resources MMU has to offer local communities include in-house experts, field agents who can help on the ground, and equipment such as ground-penetrating radar and ATVs and UTVs. The unit is also looking to double in size this year to a staff of 65 employees, increasing its number of program specialists, evidence technicians, and field agents – including a field agent in Riverton.

Another webinar attendee, Nakia Chavez of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, explained that on the Navajo reservation, due to staffing issues the tribe’s criminal investigators are also serving as coroners despite not having the relevant training. This has led to inaccurate conclusions being drawn around issues such as time of death and even cause of death – which echoes another sentiment brought up at the Wyoming MMIP meeting, that Native American deaths are frequently incorrectly ruled as suicide or accidental. ToersBijns was sympathetic, but noted that due to the Navajo Nation’s legal status, MMU has to be invited by the tribe to help before it can do anything.

“Contact a local, don’t let it die,” he advised. “Your kind of case is not uncommon.”

According to Chief Marshal Charles Addington of the Quapaw Nation Marshals Service in Oklahoma, a former BIA agent himself, when MMU and the unit it evolved out of, the BIA’s cold case unit, was first discussed it had been proposed that some of the funding would also go toward helping tribal law enforcement forces. 

“A portion of that funding was going to be sent to tribal law enforcement programs to fund tribal law enforcement staff to assist the BIA cold case investigators since they are the first responders and boots on the ground doing the initial response to these MMIP calls. Hybrid offices (Tribal and BIA) like the one that was established at Gila River in 2020 was to be the future model. However, currently the BIA is keeping all the funding for the federal program and not funding tribal law enforcement out of this pot,” Addington explained. “Is that going to continue or will the administration start funding the tribal law enforcement like the initiative was first intended?”

Unit Chief ToersBijns didn’t have an answer for him, but promised to send Addington’s remarks up his chain of command in the BIA. 

Only time will tell whether MMU’s presence and apparently careful approach will help dissolve some of the roadblocks to investigation, but for now some will likely remain skeptical. 

“Until we get actual accountability from these jurisdictions,” noted Goggles-Duran at the May MMIP Task Force meeting, “we’re still having these same conversations … If you want to get away with murder, go to the Wind River Indian Reservation.”

MMU encourages people to reach out if they have any tips about missing and murdered Indigenous people, with both phone tip lines that people can call or text (BIAMMU or 847411) and an online tip form on its website, ToersBijns also noted that MMU offers resources such as information about victim support services and monthly case reports on the website.