SOUTHERN UTE RESERVATION – U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt prioritized drug enforcement and missing and murdered indigenous women Tuesday during a keynote address at the 27th annual Four Corners Indian Country Conference held on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation.
Bernhardt, who oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, laid out the bureau’s priorities and recent actions in his speech. The conference is a yearly opportunity for tribal communities to collaborate directly with law enforcement and victim-assistance professionals. Several conference attendees saw Bernhardt’s visit as a valuable start to addressing continuing challenges.
“We are committed to upholding our responsibilities to Indian Country,” Bernhardt said. “We’re working to make tribal communities safer.”
Almost 300 people gathered in the Sky Ute Events Center for seminars focusing on issues such as human trafficking, alcohol-facilitated sexual assault, communication and de-escalation, as well as working with victims of violent crime.
Lindsay Box, communications specialist for Southern Ute Tribal Council Affairs, said the tribe was honored and privileged to welcome Bernhardt.
“We are grateful for his in-person visit to hear about the challenges, successes and suggestions from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the rest of Indian Country,” she wrote in an email to The Durango Herald.
Those challenges are varied for the law enforcement and victim-assistance professionals attending the conference.
Rosina Ford, a criminal investigator for the Navajo Department of Criminal Investigations, said the main challenge for the Navajo tribe is manpower.
There are seven investigators for seven districts on the West Virginia-sized reservation. It takes two hours to respond to an officer on the scene, Ford said.
“We’re just swamped,” she said.
Others said they faced issues like insufficient education around resources; communication challenges across federal, tribal, state and local jurisdictions; or a lack of support from tribal or non-tribal governments.
In his keynote speech, Bernhardt laid out what BIA is doing. He prioritized violent crimes, drug enforcement and cold cases, especially those of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“Without resolutions of justice being handed down to these families, for too long, these issues have been set aside and remained in the status quo,” he said.
About 84% of indigenous women have experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence in their lifetime, and U.S. attorneys decline to prosecute more than half of their cases, Bernhardt said.
In response, the department began tracking missing or unidentified people with tribal affiliations and established new law enforcement and cold case trainings.
He also emphasized combating the “scourge” of drug abuse and addiction in tribal communities. For example, the department launched an Indian Country law enforcement task force in 2018 that recovered nearly 2,400 pounds of narcotics worth about $13.6 million this fiscal year. DOI also trained over 1,100 Indian Country service providers and law enforcement officers through the Department of Justice Services.
“We will continue our efforts to combat narcotics and trafficking, but we can’t do it alone,” Bernhardt said. “We must continue to work closely with our other federal partners, particularly the Department of Justice.”
Four conference attendees said they appreciated seeing someone from the federal government speaking at the conference.
“It was a great opportunity to see what actually is being done,” said Steven Girty, a community outreach specialist and victims’ advocate from Farmington.
Bernhardt’s priorities were a start, especially gaining recognition for the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, Girty said.
Ford is waiting to see what happens.
“I hope it trickles down, and I get to see some of this training that they’re talking about,” she said. “If they could help us in that way, it would be great.”