April 1 (UPI) -- Newly sworn-in Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Thursday she's establishing a new unit to address missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Haaland, who is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, said the new Missing & Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services will provide federal assistance to the investigation of such cases.
The department said the crimes often go unsolved due to a lack of resources and funding in local jurisdictions.
"Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades," Haaland said.
"Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated. The new MMU 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."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the third-leading cause of death for American and Alaska Native girls and women aged 10 to 24. Some 1,500 American Indians and Alaska Natives are on the National Crime Information Center's list of missing persons in the country, and about 2,700 murders and homicides have been reported to the Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
The Interior Department said the new unit will build on a task force established in 2019 by former President Donald Trump to address the issue.
The MMU will work with tribal authorities, the BIA and FBI on active missing and homicide investigations. The unit also will work with the Justice Department's National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, the FBI's Forensic Laboratory and Behavioral Analysis Units, the U.S. Marshals Missing Child Unit, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"Whether it's a missing family member or a homicide investigation, these efforts will be all hands-on deck," Haaland said. "We are fully committed to assisting Tribal communities with these investigations, and the MMU will leverage every resource available to be a force-multiplier in preventing these cases from becoming cold case investigations."