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Since the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) established its Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples (MMIP) Regional Outreach Program in June, leaders in California have pressured the agency to include the state in the program. 

California has the largest population of Native Americans in the country, and the fifth most MMIP cases, leaders say, but has been excluded from the list to receive additional federal resources to combat the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

On Wednesday, California Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) led an effort calling on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to place DOJ personnel in California as part of the newly designated Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People (MMIP) Regional Outreach Program.

“While we are greatly encouraged that the Department of Justice (DOJ) recently launched an MMIP Regional Outreach Program, we are disappointed that California was excluded from the list of states to receive dedicated MMIP personnel, particularly given that California has the largest population of Native Americans of any state in the nation and the fifth largest caseload of MMIP,” wrote the lawmakers in a letter on September 13. “Therefore, we ask that you place dedicated MMIP personnel in U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in California, just as you have in ten other states.”

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The letter was also signed by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Representatives Nanette Barragán (D-CA), Jim Costa (D-CA), Sara Jacobs (D-CA), Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Doris Matsui (D-CA), Kevin Mullin (D-CA), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Katie Porter (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Mike Thompson (D-CA), and Norma Torres (D-CA). 

When DOJ announced the MMIP Regional Outreach Program, it announced that the program permanently places ten attorneys and coordinators in five designated regions across the U.S.—the Northwest, Southwest, Great Plains, Great Lakes, and Southeast Regions—to aid in the prevention and response to missing or murdered Indigenous people. The ten states to receive additional federal assistance include Alaska, Arizona, Washington, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, and Michigan. 

California is a Public Law 83-280 (PL280) state, where the state, opposed to the federal government, assumes civil and criminal jurisdiction on Indian lands. The law was passed in 1953, during the Termination era, when Congress sought to diminish federal responsibilities to federally recognized tribes and their lands. Not all states are PL280 states, though. The states required by PL280 to assume civil and criminal jurisdiction over federal Indian lands are Alaska, (excluding the Annette Island Reservation), California, Minnesota (excluding the Red Lake Indian Reservation), Nebraska, Oregon (excluding the Warm Springs Indian Reservation), and Wisconsin.

 The federal government assumes criminal jurisdiction on Indian lands in all other states. According to the California lawmakers, PL280 and other federal Indian laws have significantly disadvantaged California Tribes, which harms their efforts to combat and respond to the MMIP crisis.

 Before the law was passed, California Tribes were not consulted with, like many other federal Indian laws passed in the 1900s, and unanimously objected the law.

 “In addition to California tribal communities being denied federal law enforcement resources as a result of PL-280, many DOJ and other federal initiatives routinely overlook California Tribes, harming their efforts to combat the MMIP crisis,” the lawmakers continued in their letter. 

The law did not provide any additional resources to states that assumed civil and criminal jurisdiction, and leaders have said that this has created a public safety crisis on Indian lands. 

“PL-280 has created a dire situation for public safety on affected tribal lands in California, causing crimes — especially those committed by non-Native individuals — to go uninvestigated and unpunished,” said the lawmakers.

There hasn’t been conclusive data that examines criminal justice outcomes for Tribes and Tribal citizens in PL280 states compared to the rest of Indian country and Congressional leaders have asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate. 

Padilla and four other Senators are leading an effort to appropriate $165 million in additional funding for Tribes in PL280 states in the 2024 fiscal year to combat MMIP issues.

“An investment of an additional $165 million in public safety funding for tribes in PL-280 states would help these tribes to build their own law enforcement capacity, improve crime response times, and support coordination with local and state law enforcement agencies,” the Senators wrote on April 4, 2023. “Providing this funding is critical to addressing chronic under-policing on tribal lands and allowing Tribal governments to protect their people through culturally appropriate community policing.”

California Tribes have taken the lead on local levels, implementing a variety of efforts to combat the crisis of missing Indigenous peoples in the state. James C. Ramos, the state’s first and only Native American Assembly member, has been leading efforts on the state legislative side and recently led an effort to pass a statewide alert system when a missing Indigenous person is reported to law enforcement. Called the California Statewide Feather Alert Program, the California Highway Patrol issues alerts to state residents via mobile phone alerts, social media, and news media and displays them on highway digital boards — similar to the AMBER alert system.

Earlier this year, in June, the Yurok Tribe hired California’sfirst full-time investigator first full-time investigator who is dedicated to investigating MMIP. The Tribe is also developing a drone program to assist in searches and is part of the Tribe’s efforts to address the crisis itself. 

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About The Author
Author: Darren ThompsonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a staff reporter for Native News Online who is based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, Powwows.com and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.