Clockwise, from top left: Monica Wickre (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians), Mona Lisa Two Eagle (Rosebud Sioux Tribe), Stella Marie Trottier-Graves (Turtle Mountain), Lakota Rae Renville (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate), are just four Native women whose disappearances and deaths remain unsolved. Photos courtesy Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota)

Tribal safety measures encounter little resistance from Department of Justice

The last time the Department of Justice went before Congress to discuss Indian issues, the affair didn't go so well, as lawmakers questioned whether the agency was truly committed to helping the first Americans.

That wasn't the case at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on Wednesday afternoon. A much higher-level representative of the department -- and one with the authority to make change -- offered little resistance to a trio of public safety measures that supporters say will protect some of the most vulnerable in Indian Country, especially women and victims of crime.

"The three bills that we are here to discuss today address some of the biggest threats to public safety in Native communities," R. Trent Shores, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation who serves as the U.S. Attorney for Northern Oklahoma, told the committee.

"Violent crime and substance abuse occurs at higher rates in Indian Country than anywhere else in the United States. This is unacceptable," added Shores, who was confirmed to his high-level post in September and is one of the few tribal citizens to become a U.S. Attorney.

Despite the strong words, Shores was not able to convey the Trump administration's official position on any of the bills. The department is still reviewing S.1870, the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act, or SURVIVE Act; S.1953, the Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization and Amendments Act; and S.1942, also known as Savanna's Act, he said.

Still, members of the committee are intent on moving quickly on the measures, all of which enjoy bipartisan support. All are less than a month old and their swift consideration highlights the pressing need to address high rates of crime and violence in tribal communities.

"I hope we can continue this momentum," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), who introduced S.1942, a bill named for for Savanna Marie Greywind, a Spirit Lake Nation citizen who was kidnapped and killed in North Dakota in August, in dramatic fashion on October 5.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Legislative Hearing October 25, 2017

Historically, the Department of Justice has resisted key provisions in tribal safety measures, regardless of which party is in charge of the executive branch. The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, for example, faced opposition during both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations because it requires federal prosecutors to disclose data on the numbers of Indian Country cases they decline to pursue.

It took nearly a year before Obama's Department of Justice dropped its opposition to the disclosure provision and the bill finally became law in July 2010. None of the concerns about providing the declination data to Congress have come to pass.

The three new bills build on the 2010 law, as well as the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, which includes a historic provision recognizing tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians who abuse their partners. Among other provisions, they direct more resources to victims of crime in Indian Country, ensure funding for tribes to access federal criminal databases, require more data collection on Native human trafficking victims and initiate a national dialog on missing and murdered Native women.

S.1870, the SURVIVE Act, mandates a tribal set-aside of 5 percent from the Crime Victims Fund at the Department of Justice. Existing data shows tribes receive less than 1 percent of the funds.

"There's just so much we can do with this kind of money," said Carmen O'Leary, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who serves as the director of the Native Women's Society of the Great Plains. "We can create that safe space, we can provide more counseling, we will have burial help."

Carmen O'Leary, the director of the Native Women's Society of the Great Plains, is seen at the witness table at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in Washington, D.C., on October 25, 2017. Photo: Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota)

S.1953 updates the Tribal Law and Order Act by addressing a wide range of issues, from renewing grant programs to improving juvenile justice. Doug Flute, the chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, singled out provisions that require more coordination between the Department of Justice and other federal agencies.

"We have domestic violence, we have drug offenders, we have child neglect, drunk drivers, but we have become a catch and release tribe and it's happening throughout Indian Country," Flute said of the need to provide staffing and funding for detention facilities on reservations.

S.1942, Savanna's Act, responds to growing concerns about the large numbers of missing and murdered Native women. Data is scarce, partly because the Department of Justice has never been required to track the data, but Heitkamp was able to discern one alarming figure from a national database for the year 2016.

"i just wanna say that -- in one year only, over 5,700 cases of missing Native women," Heitkamp said. "The actual number is likely much larger, due to chronic under-reporting."

In addition to requiring an annual report on the numbers of missing and murdered Native women, Savanna's Act requires Justice to consult tribes on ways to make criminal databases more responsive to their needs. It also seeks to ensure tribal access to a broader set of data from local, regional and state systems.

"To organize and respond to an injustice, it must first be acknowledged and understood," said O'Leary.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing to Receive Testimony on S. 1870, S. 1953, and S. 1942 (October 25, 2017)

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