(CN) – U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced a Department of Justice program Friday that will help investigate cases of missing and murdered indigenous people in America.
Speaking in the council chambers of the Confederated and Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Pablo, Montana, Barr said the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative will place Justice Department personnel in 11 U.S. attorney offices in states with tribal reservations.
Barr said tribal members in the United States face high rates of violence, alcoholism and abuse on the reservations.
“American Indian and Alaska Native people suffer from unacceptable and disproportionately high levels of violence, which can have lasting impacts on families and communities,” Barr said. “Too many of these families have experienced the loss of loved ones who went missing or were murdered.
“This important initiative will further strengthen the federal, state and tribal law enforcement response to these continuing problems.”
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who live on the Flathead Indian Reservation of northwest Montana, have members who are missing. The task force is a welcome resource to help investigate the disappearances, tribal council vice chairman Leonard Gray said.
The rates of suicide, violence and alcohol “plague our communities,” Gray said. “Our people have waited for generations … for the United States to live up to its obligation of protecting our people.”
The states that will have new missing persons coordinators are Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, Michigan, Utah, Nevada, Minnesota, Oregon, New Mexico and Washington state.
The first person hired to head up a task force is Ernie Weyand, who will work out of the Montana U.S. Attorney’s Office in Billings, Montana. U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana Kurt Alme said, “The missing need to be found and brought home, murderers and abusers must be brought to justice, and violence against women must stop.”
Barr said Montana has been a “vanguard” in finding missing Native Americans. In 2019, the Montana Legislature created a bill called “Hanna’s Act” which directed Montana Department of Justice personnel to help investigate missing persons. Alme said Barr’s initiative will complement the steps taken by his office this year.
In Montana there are seven Native American tribes. Tribal members account for 7% of the population, but 30% of the missing persons in the state, according to Shelly Fyant, council member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
“These statistics are overwhelming,” she said.
Barr, who served as attorney general under George H.W. Bush and is the only attorney general to have served two presidents, said it’s time to bring more resources to helping Indian country find its missing people.
“As attorney general I view it as my responsibility to fight for the safety of every American,” Barr said. “It’s an extremely important issue in our communities. This is not a panacea, but a step in the right direction.”
Tony Incashola and Vernon Finley, members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ cultural committees, presented Barr with a ceremonial blanket, which Barr wore solemnly.
“Our people have always welcomed great leaders who can make our lives safe and happy, and a place for us to grow,” Incashola said.
Following his announcement at the Flathead Indian Reservation on Friday morning, Barr traveled to nearby Kalispell, Montana, where, as a guest of U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., he spoke on efforts to fight methamphetamine.