In one of her first acts as Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland has set up a new unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate the many thousands of unsolved cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous Americans, the majority of whom are women.
“The new [Missing and Murdered] unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families,” said Haaland in a statement published on the Department of the Interior’s website on Thursday, ABC News reports.
The move from Haaland—a member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American cabinet secretary in United States history, per Indian Country Today, who previously represented New Mexico’s 1st District in Congress—builds on her work in the House of Representatives over the past two years, where she led the bipartisan legislative effort to address the oft-ignored crisis that Indigenous women have faced for far too long, The Missoula Current notes. Homicide is the third leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls between the ages of 10 and 24, according to ABC News, and Indigenous women are more than 10 times more likely to be victims of murder, though due to underfunding and lack of interest those murders often go unsolved.
Still, advocates warn that there’s still more work to be done. “We have to recognize this as just the start,” Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, told ABC News. “It’s not enough to search for them when they go missing or investigate the crimes when they’re murdered. We have to be at the point of prevention.”