Missing, murdered Indigenous investigations job left unfilled by feds in Oklahoma

Molly Young

The U.S. Department of Justice hasn’t had a missing and murdered Indigenous people case coordinator in Oklahoma since March, and the job may be cut altogether.

The months-long vacancy raises questions about the strides the Department of Justice is making to address unsolved killings and disappearances of Indigenous Oklahomans.

The state’s three U.S. attorneys hired longtime law enforcement officer Patti Buhl, a Cherokee Nation citizen, as their first missing and murdered Indigenous people case coordinator in June 2020. Buhl was one of 11 coordinators hired across the U.S. to help tribal, state and local agencies navigate jurisdictional questions that often arise when Native Americans are killed or go missing from tribal lands.

Buhl left the position in March, said Lennea Montandon, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Northern District of Oklahoma. Buhl now works in the attorney general’s office of the Cherokee Nation, tribal spokesperson Julie Hubbard said. 

Montandon said officials are not filling the vacant post until they hear whether the coordinator roles, launched during the Trump administration, will be funded again by President Joe Biden. She referred questions about future funding to the department’s Washington, D.C., communications office. No one there responded to inquiries about the future of the coordinator positions. The roles aren’t explicitly listed in the president’s Justice Department budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.

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National crisis

Federal officials received broad support when they created the coordinator positions as part of a 2019 push to tackle the disproportionate rates of violence against Native Americans, particularly women, girls and the LGBTQ community. Coordinators are based in states with large Indigenous populations, including Arizona and New Mexico, in addition to Oklahoma.

They are supposed to bring together law enforcement agencies and help write guidelines so investigations do not stall over uncertainty about jurisdiction. Job duties also include trying to quantify the full scope of the crisis.

No nationwide clearinghouse tracks homicides and disappearances of Native Americans. One U.S. missing persons database, NamUs, lists 80 Indigenous people who were last seen in Oklahoma.

Moving forward

Montandon said the issue remains a priority, even without a designated coordinator in Oklahoma. She said federal officials and tribal leaders are still crafting case investigation guidelines.

Federal attorneys also meet often with tribal officials to address jurisdictional questions brought about by the Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma. The July 2020 decision led to the expansion of the criminal jurisdictions of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole nations after courts reaffirmed their reservations had not been disestablished.

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Oklahoma is also in a unique spot because of Ida’s Law, which takes effect in November. The new state law directs the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to work with the U.S. Department of Justice to find federal funding to create a local office dedicated to investigating the killings and disappearances of Native Americans.

The law, which gained bipartisan support, was named after Ida Beard, a Cheyenne and Arapaho woman missing since 2005.

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Another federal agency, the Interior Department, is starting its own unit to investigate the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to hold her office, announced the news in April. She outlined her plans for the investigations unit again Tuesday during a virtual meeting of the National Congress of American Indians.

“For too long this issue has been swept under the rug by our government,” Haaland said. 

Molly Young covers Indigenous affairs for the USA Today Network's Sunbelt Region of Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. Reach her at or 405-347-3534.