Lessons from the Not Invisible Act Commission

By Lucy Moore, Nadine Tafoya, and Patrick Field

The Not Invisible Act Commission was created as part of an act, sponsored by then-Congresswoman Deborah Haaland, to address the epidemic of murdered, missing, and trafficked Indigenous people. The Commission was officially convened in May of 2022. Facilitated by a team assembled by CBI—a team of three facilitators, two technical writers, and two associates—the Commission brought together representatives of Tribal Nations; Tribal organizations; the U.S. Departments of the Interior, Justice, and Health and Human Services; and state and local law enforcement agencies and nonprofits. After 18 months of deliberations, including a three-month hiatus due to authorizing language, in November of 2023 the Commission issued its recommendations to the Departments of the Interior and Justice, and to the U.S. Congress. 

The Commission worked across Indian Country to develop its wide-ranging and detailed recommendations, which covered matters of: law enforcement and investigative resources; reporting and collecting data on missing, murdered, and trafficked persons; recruitment and retention of Tribal and BIA law enforcement; coordinating resources—criminal jurisdiction, prosecution, and information-sharing; victim and family resources and services; and legislative and administrative changes. The Commission sought to bring technical and lived expertise together, across Indian and Alaska Native country, addressing fundamental questions of life, death, crime, justice, power, and equity, while providing a measure of community, empathy, healing, and reconciliation. This meant bringing together activists, community members, survivors, and local, state, and federal officials. The process included full Commission meetings—some virtual and some in-person—meetings of six Work Groups to explore problems and develop solutions, and seven in-person, multi-day hearings to gather the stories, wisdom, and pain of families and survivors and those who work with them.

The seven field hearings were essential to inform the Commission with Tribal voices. Hearings were held in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Flagstaff, Arizona; Anchorage, Alaska; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Billings, Montana; Blue Lake, California; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, along with a virtual option for those who could not attend in person. Site visits to communities and facilities accompanied the hearings, which were led by Commission members and included mental health and traditional healing support. Attended by hundreds overall, the hearings were filled with stories of loss, terrible pain, and hardship. But they were also a testament to the resilience and power of hundreds who continue to work tirelessly for a better future for Indigenous peoples across the U.S. The hearings provided invaluable testimony that the Commission used to craft its recommendations.  

The Commission process was challenged by the enormity of the problem, a short timeline, many members with diverse perspectives, the challenges of interagency coordination, and the multi-generational trauma experienced by Indigenous communities. But through the process, the facilitation team, led by the Commission members, changed, tailored, and refined a process that would better hold up Indigenous voices and values.  We share just a few of these lessons below.

Respecting the Tribal Voice 

  • The foundation of the Not Invisible Act Commission was the belief that the Tribes are the experts of their own condition. All processes engaging Tribal communities must allow that wisdom to be forthright.
  • Representation of Tribal community is extremely important in such processes, and it must include appointed/elected Tribal Leaders, traditional/medicine leaders, respected Tribal elders, and young adult leaders. Representation must also include politicians and community activists, informal/peer leaders, and other thought leaders from the Tribal community.
  • Strong Tribal representation doesn’t necessarily mean only those with political or academic credentials. It also means representatives who know the culture, traditions, legacies, and practices of the Tribes they represent.
  • Reasonable accommodations need to be made, when necessary, to acculturate federal participants to Tribal ways early in the process. Vice-versa, Tribal participants less familiar with federal agency culture should, early on, receive support about how to navigate federal processes. 

Building on a Sacred Foundation

  • A successful coalition with Tribes and Tribal communities must be built on a foundation of sacredness, sacred space, sacred intent, and sacred community. There is no Tribal work that is separate from sacredness.
  • Thought and resources must be given to ceremony, including ceremonial objects, people, space, song, and sustenance for participants.
  • Meetings and gatherings should begin with the creation of a sacred space, modeled on Tribal Council meetings and other Tribal community gatherings that open the space with a prayer or song. This effort sets the tone of the gathering, establishing that this is an important and safe space. The ritual must be guided by the Tribal representatives. Prayer, ritual, feasting, and other activities are essential and part of any good Tribal-centric process. They are not “add-ons.”
  • While access to western mental health resources is important, it is equally if not more important for participants to have access to local healers and elders who can provide ceremony, understanding, and culturally appropriate tools and behaviors for healing.

These lessons, drawn from the Commission’s work across Indian Country, are straightforward, and they can make a real difference. Respecting Tribal perspectives, methods, and leadership helps make sure that such processes address what matters most, in ways that are most effective.