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Interior Department's New Unit To Investigate Missing And Murdered Native Americans

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Less than a month after taking office, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history, announced the creation of a unit to investigate missing and murdered Native Americans. She made the announcement this past week, and the unit will be housed within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The message - that the government needs to do more.

Haaland said in a statement, quote, "violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades." And that violence is most acute for women. Native American women are the victims of murder at more than 10 times the national average. That's according to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.

Connie Walker is a journalist who has spent years covering the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. She's also the host of the podcast "Stolen: The Search For Jermain." Connie Walker, welcome.

CONNIE WALKER: Thanks so much for having me.

FADEL: So, Connie, a lot of your work is focused on making sure missing and murdered Native American women's lives are not forgotten. Given that important work, what's your reaction to this announcement?

WALKER: Well, I think I'm sure that there are going to be a lot of families that are incredibly excited about this announcement. You know, I think that this issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls isn't a new issue. This is something that's been ongoing for decades - you know, centuries even. But I think what's happened and what's changed in the last few years is there's a growing awareness of this crisis, and there's a growing awareness about the impacts of that violence on the lives of Indigenous women and girls.

You know, I'm from Canada but have been reporting on the U.S. for about a year now. And I think just - you know, I think the hope that Indigenous people had seeing Secretary Haaland being confirmed - this is kind of the realization of that hope that there is somebody there that knows our experiences, who has shared lived experiences similar to what we have - because I'm also Indigenous; I grew up on my reserve in Canada - and, you know, very quickly is acting on that. And I imagine for Indigenous people who have been so underrepresented in politics, in media, that means a lot.

FADEL: You know, it's hard to even find hard data that gets at the scale of the problem. Why is that?

WALKER: I think it has to do with that patchwork of jurisdictions that so often impacts Indigenous country, right? You know, there's a lot of reserves, obviously, that have federal oversight or have BIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, police or have FBI jurisdiction. But then also a lot of Indigenous people actually live off-reserve, you know? So I think that there is no central place for this data to be housed.

It's really, really tricky because obviously, I think until you can understand the scope of the problem, it's hard to think about how to even address it. But the statistics that you said at the beginning - you know, that in some Indigenous communities, you know, the murder rate for Indigenous women is 10 times higher than the national average, more than 1 in 2 Indigenous women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime - you know, I think that we can sometimes focus on those statistics, and they sound alarming. But it really isn't until you meet the people who are affected by that and help people understand that for every statistic, there is a real family who's going through this loss, who's going through this grief.

And that for me, as a journalist, as an Indigenous journalist, as an Indigenous woman, it has been my goal to try to get beyond those numbers and get beyond the statistics because, you know, the truth is that Indigenous people in general have been so underrepresented and misrepresented often in media, you know, from the very beginning. And I think that we're not just countering not enough stories. We have to counter all of these kinds of myths and stereotypes that exist about what it means to be Indigenous in 2021 in North America.

FADEL: Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, there was a national inquiry looking into people who'd gone missing or were killed. Was that initiative successful?

WALKER: I think that that remains to be seen. I think that it was a very different kind of initiative, I think, than the one that is being presented in the United States. And it was more of a look to kind of address the systemic issues of violence that Indigenous women and girls experience. And I think that for a lot of families who had never, you know, been able to share their story, who felt that maybe it wasn't taken seriously or - and it wasn't, you know, given the attention that it deserves, it was healing to participate in the national inquiry, which, you know, traveled to Indigenous communities across the country and was led by Indigenous women.

But I think that the recommendations that they made - I think, you know, there's some questions about how this government and provincial governments are acting upon those recommendations. And is enough being done to address the root causes of this violence? And what they didn't do - which is, you know, I think what's happening or what's being proposed, at least, in the U.S. - is investigate individual cases, you know, so actually put some resources behind some of these cold cases, some of these unsolved cases with an aim to really trying to find some resolution for families.

FADEL: So what is the answer here? I mean, is it about allocating resources, more resources to law enforcement? Or is it about allocating more resources to addressing the root causes of the violence that kills and disappears women and girls?

WALKER: I mean, I think that it's all of those things. But I think that it has to start with an awareness. It has to start with an acknowledgement that this is happening and this is a real issue. And so I'm sure having increased law enforcement will be helpful. But it also - you know, obviously, we want to stop and address this crisis of Indigenous women going missing or being murdered. But that is one terrible outcome of several terrible outcomes. And, you know, just the rates of violence that women who survive experience is also something that needs to be addressed. And that is - you know, that's not a simple fix.

FADEL: That was Connie Walker, a journalist and the host of the podcast "Stolen: The Search For Jermain." Thanks so much.

WALKER: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.