By Morgan Taylor, Reporter
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma – On Jan. 6, U.S. Attorney Trent Shores visited Mvskoke Radio to discuss the impact of the McGirt Decision and the impact it has made on the initiative to support the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative formerly known as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Initiative.
With the decision of the McGirt case back in July, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation was recognized as never having been disestablished and was now able to assert tribal jurisdiction over tribal members. This is also meant that the state of OK lost criminal jurisdiction over any case involving an Indian victim or an Indian defendant and it was shifted to the United States.
“That means for us at the U.S. Attorneys office where we are the chief federal law enforcement officials in our neck of the woods, we have seen a 300 percent increase in total cases per month,” Shores said.
These numbers reflect total criminal cases. Shores adds, “We have had to prioritize by looking at major crimes, any crime involving an in-custody defendant, any violent crime, any crime involving a child victim making sure every victim experiences a measure of justice.”
Shores is a member of the Choctaw Tribe and throughout his career has worked in Indian Country as criminal prosecutor dealing with domestic violence victims and child victims.
According to Shores, the change of the name from MMIW to MMIP was due to the high numbers of not just women but men that are also considered missing and murdered. In OK particularly, the cases in missing persons for men are currently higher than that of women.
“As we began looking at the issue and pulling numbers from the state of OK about missing indigenous people and missing Native Americans we found that there were a lot of native boys and men missing and we wanted to make sure we didn’t leave out any group of people and victims in Indian Country,” Shores explains. “We have addressed that here by hiring an MMIP Coordinator, Patty Buell who is a career law enforcement officer in Indian Country and a member of the Cherokee Nation.”
As the MMIP Coordinator, Buell will hold accountable those who are supposed to be investigating cases of MMIP victims and work with community groups by improving communications between investigators and victims’ families and friends.
“As we dig into this, these are things we find that these are small common sense decisions that can be made to improve the delivery of public services, law enforcement, and helping to find the missing persons before they fall into that category of murdered persons,” Shores said.
A study published by the Seattle Indian Health Board’s Urban Health Institute in 2018 ranked the state of OK 10th nationally for the number of cases regarding MMIW without involving cases in men and boys.
“We experiences many challenges with numbers and rankings,” Shores explains. “We have looked into it to find a total of 67 open cases of missing Native Americans that dates to the first one in 1976. Out of those we have found 29 female and 38 male that are currently open, we have to recognize that this transcends across Indian country. When people go missing, doesn’t mean they are in the same place they went missing from.”
Shores says making sure that communication stays open between agencies is one way to help locate victims.
On Nov. 23, with efforts from the Department of Justice MMIP Initiative, the MCN, the Cherokee Nation, and the U.S. Attorney’s office the Tribal Community Response Pilot Programs was established to implement culturally appropriate guidelines when investigating cases.
Oklahoma was the first state in the country to launch the program.
Concerned MCN citizen and lawyer Brenda Golden has partnered with OK State Representative Daniel Pae on legislation what will be known as the Aubrey Alert Initiative to help mitigate further efforts on the issue.
Previously, Golden had worked on a similar legislation in 2020 called the “Red Alert” with the purpose of sending text message notifications when a Native American woman was reported missing much like the Silver Alert for elders and the Amber Alert from children.
Along with COVID, Golden said she experienced much resistance as legislators had made comments that Native Americans were requesting special treatment. “I tried explaining to them that we are treated differently in these situations,” Golden said.
After testifying on three different occasions on Operation Lady Justice and telling her own personal experience regarding her daughter and saving her just before being a potential victim of human trafficking in Amarillo, TX; the director of the taskforce reached out to Golden informing her of the Ashanti Alert. This federal policy provides education and helps agencies set up local alert systems for adults who go missing under questionable or suspicious circumstances.
Upon learning of this policy, Golden reached out to the director of the Ashanti Alert program along with Rep. Pae after his reelection in Nov. for help and he gladly accepted.
“The last couple months we have been working on tweaking the language of legislation. Now, legislation has been finalized to establish an alert system for local and state wide law enforcement agencies when someone goes missing,” Golden said. “It will be introduced on Jan 21 where it will receive a house bill number.”
Though it is similar legislation to the Red Alert, the name has changed to help bring awareness and honor to Aubrey Dameron.
“After contacting the family, we have decided to call it the Aubrey Alert,” Golden said.
Dameron, a member of the Cherokee Nation, went missing in March 9, 2019 from her family home in Grove, OK. At the time she was 25. She was reported missing two days after her disappearance with little to no regard from local law enforcement.
Golden says they have chosen to honor her for many reasons and one being that her case was like that of many Native women that go missing. Though Dameron was transgender, her disappearance was taken very lightly and not treated with urgency.
Family and friends took it upon themselves to search for her for many months before law enforcement took action. No sign of Dameron was ever detected and she still remains missing.
“When developing this alert system, we wanted to make sure that law enforcement agencies and the media would take our cases more seriously,” Golden said. “Many times they make excuses for the person by saying they are out partying or laying up with their boyfriend and just blow them off.”
Golden explains that the need for this alert system is dire in Oklahoma as there are many major interstates that cross each other and victims can be transported out of state quickly. Oklahoma remains a high trade route for traffickers.
The Aubrey Alert will cover all adults that go missing ages 18-59 and not just towards victims of MMIP.
“My hope is that this alert system will bridge the gap between law enforcement agencies, the media and community members to look for not just victims of MMIP but all victims,” Golden said.
Save the date as MMIP Advocacy Day at the OK State Capitol approaches on Feb. 17.
Last year, the MCN took a charter bus of supporters to the event, but due to COVID-19 will not this year.
Mvskoke Media will continue to follow and report on efforts made regarding MMIP.