Opinion: How to Address the Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People

Raven Casas speaks at a cultural presentation on the steps of the state Capitol in August about missing and murdered Indigenous people. Photo courtesy the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

For far too long, missing and murdered Native people haven’t received the attention they deserve from law enforcement and government agencies across the state. Instead, their cases have often been ignored and California has failed to bring justice to the victims and their families. 

The number of missing and murdered Indigenous people (MMIP) is staggering. It is a public health crisis. 

With more than 630,000 Native Americans residing in California, the state has the largest Native American population in the U.S. and fifth largest caseload of MMIP. In 2016, the National Crime Information Center reported 5,712 missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in the U.S., with only 116 of those cases logged by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

As a citizen of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, located in Highland, I joined Native American Tribal leaders and members, and families of victims at the state capitol in Sacramento on February 7, for the first MMIP Day of Action. Tribal representatives called on legislators for a historic investment of $200 million to establish programs and services that prevent girls, women and other people from becoming missing or murdered. 

The proposal will bolster tribe-led response plans, law enforcement and public health programs in California, which have long been excluded from many state and federal programs for effectively preventing, investigating and prosecuting MMIP cases. 

Last year, Assemblymember James C. Ramos helped get the California “Feather Alert,” system signed into law. Similar to the Amber Alert, the Feather Alert provides immediate information to the public to help recover missing Indigenous persons. This is the first step in putting the community at large on high alert that a Native person has gone missing; this has been one of the main barriers to raising awareness that can help solve cases.

Since then, Ramos has introduced AB 44, (Tribal Public Safety) a bill that seeks to grant tribal police state peace officer status. Sponsored by the Yurok Tribe, the bill will give qualified tribal police officers parity with state law enforcement as well as the ability to enforce all state laws and file cases in state courts. The bill would also provide tribal law enforcement and tribal courts access to the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System. The computer network contains FBI and DMV administered databases, criminal histories and many other essential records. The bill would benefit all Californians by increasing the number of peace officers available to protect and serve communities. 

A second bill introduced by Ramos, AB 273 (Protecting and Locating Foster Children Missing from Care), will require counties and courts to notify Tribes, family members and attorneys when a child is missing from foster care. The bill would also require a judicial hearing when a child or nonminor dependent in foster care is missing, to ensure the child is located and returned to a safe environment. Native children in the foster care system are disproportionately at risk of becoming MMIP victims.

California tribes are committed to actively supporting the MMIP initiative. My Tribe, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, provided a $350,000 grant to assist the Yurok Tribe in hiring an investigator dedicated to MMIP cases. 

With an increasing number of unsolved MMIP cases, there’s an urgency to act now to protect Indigenous people.The loss of our loved ones matters and it has weighed heavy on the hearts of every Native person in the state for far too long.  

Raven Casas is a Tribal Citizen of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and an advocate for MMIP.

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