President Donald Trump announces a dramatic reduction in the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument in Salt Lake City, Utah, on December 4, 2017. Photo: Andrea Hanks / White House
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Indian Country public safety bills advance amid silence from Trump administration




Thanks to bipartisan support from lawmakers, bills to improve public safety in Indian Country are advancing in Congress despite limited commitments from the Trump administration.

Just last week, the Senate passed S.772, the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act. The bill ensures that tribes, for the first time, can receive federal funds to establish AMBER Alert systems on their territories.

“Native American children are some of the most vulnerable children in the country, yet there isn’t an AMBER Alert system in much of Indian Country, and that makes it very difficult to recover children who have been abducted or who have run away,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), a co-sponsor of S.772 said in a press release on November 30, when S.772 was among nine Indian bills that cleared in the chamber.

A day earlier, the House Committee on the Judiciary approved H.R.2666, a companion version of the bill, during a markup session. It's now ready for action in the House so the measure stands a stronger chance of becoming law.

"It is obvious that AMBER Alerts save lives, and today we have the opportunity to ensure that all children can benefit from the AMBER Alert program if necessary, no matter where they reside," Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona), the sponsor of H.R.2666, said in explaining the need to include Indian Country.

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, testifies at at Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in Washington, D.C., on October 25, 2017. Photo: SCIA

A second Indian Country public safety is also moving forward on Capitol Hill. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is meeting to consider S.1870, the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act, or the SURVIVE Act.

The bill mandates an Indian Country 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," 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, said during an October 25 hearing on the measure. "We can create that safe space, we can provide more counseling, we will have burial help."

S.1870 was introduced by Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the Republican leader of committee, and it counts four Republicans and four Democrats as co-sponsors. It's due to advance at a business meeting on Wednesday afternoon, where it is the only item on the agenda.

Despite movement on the bills, the Trump administration has not formally expressed its views on either measure. A May 10 hearing, when a lower-level government official was scheduled to testify on S.772, was abruptly canceled due to partisan outrage over the surprise ouster of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which plays a major role in public safety in Indian Country, by President Donald Trump.

A special federal prosecutor is now investigating the circumstances of the firing and whether it was connected to the Russian government's interference in the 2016 presidential election. Four people connected to Trump, including his former campaign manager, who was a lobbyist on Indian gaming issues, have been indicted so far.

Of those defendants, two already have pleaded guilty. Just on Friday, Trump's former national security adviser admitted he lied to the FBI and court documents show he is cooperating with the inquiry.

R. Trent Shores, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation who serves as the U.S. Attorney for Northern Oklahoma, testifies at at Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in Washington, D.C., on October 25, 2017. Photo: SCIA

As for S.1870, the Trump administration sent a higher-level representative to the October 25 hearing on the bill. Yet R. Trent Shores, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation who serves as the U.S. Attorney for Northern Oklahoma, said DOJ had not yet developed a position on the measure, which was introduced a month prior.

"Violent crime and substance abuse occurs at higher rates in Indian Country than anywhere else in the United States. This is unacceptable," said 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.

According to DOJ statistics, Native Americans suffer from the highest rate of victimization in the United States. Native women, in particular, are more likely to experience violent crime, most often at the hands of non-Native perpetrators.

Native girls are among the most vulnerable. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) introduced the AMBER Alert bill after Ashlynne Mike went missing and was murdered on the Navajo Nation in May 2016. She was only 11 years old.

“In that high profile case, authorities did not issue an AMBER Alert for Ashlynne until the day after family members reported her abduction,” McCain, a former two-term chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said last week.

“According to FBI statistics, more than 7,500 Native American children are listed as missing in the United States today," McCain added. "We must protect the most vulnerable individuals in Indian Country, and this legislation is an important step forward in that effort.”

A third Indian Country public safety bill takes on the "epidemic" of missing and murdered Native women and girls by requiring DOJ to report, for the first time, on the numbers of such cases. Though the committee took testimony on S.1942, also known as Savanna's Act, it has not yet been been scheduled for a business meeting.

Nicole Matthews, a citizen of the White Earth Nation who serves as the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition, testifies at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in Washington, D.C., on September 27, 2017. Photo: SCIA

On a fourth issue, the committee has looked at trafficking of Native Americans but DOJ has refused to mandate collection on the number of such cases. The Trump administration sent a lower-level official to the September 27 hearing where advocates for Native women said better data could lead to more federal funding and improved services for victims.

"If you ask someone, are you a victim of trafficking, are you Native American, and you don't have services to follow up, then it can potentially cause more harm," said Nicole Matthews, a citizen of the White Earth Nation who serves as the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition.

She said it was "disturbing" to learn that, officially, only 2 Indian Country trafficking cases were prosecuted by federal authorities between 2013 and 2016, because her research indicates a widespread problem, both on and off reservations.

The Department of Justice is led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump has publicly bashed for stepping aside in connection with the firing of the FBI director and the special counsel probe. During his time in the Senate, where he represented the state of Alabama, Sessions opposed the recognition of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians in the Violence Against Women Act.

When pressed on the issue during his confirmation hearings earlier this year, Sessions admitted he had a "big concern" about the provision, which has been implemented without major problems since 2013. He also left open the door for challenges to tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians.

Sessions has since announced the continuation of Indian Country justice programs, though he inaccurately described one key initiative as a "new" action even though it began during the Obama era. And after the lower-level witness was criticized at the September hearing on human trafficking, his department sent Shores to the October hearing on the public safety bills.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs business meeting for S.1870, the SURVIVE Act, takes place at 2:30pm Eastern on Wednesday. It will be immediately followed by a legislative hearing on tribal water settlements.

The SURVIVE Act does not have a companion version in the House but that chamber could always take up S.1870 if it advances in the Senate.

So far in the 115th Congress, which began in January, only one stand-alone Indian bill -- H.R.228, the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Consolidation Act -- is ready to be sent to the White House for Trump's possible signature.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Business Meeting to Consider S. 1870 (December 6, 2017)

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Tribal employment measure gives President Trump his first chance to sign an Indian bill (November 30, 2017)
Tribal safety measures encounter little resistance from Department of Justice (October 26, 2017)
New bill aims to address 'epidemic' of missing and murdered Native women (October 5, 2017)
Department of Justice announces Indian Country initiatives after facing criticism (October 3, 2017)
Department of Justice won't collect data on Native human trafficking victims (September 27, 2017)
Wife of Sen. McCain on witness list for hearing on trafficking in Indian Country (September 25, 2017)
Navajo Nation citizen sentenced to life in prison for murdering 11-year-old girl (August 2, 2017)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approves two bills at meeting (June 14, 2017)
Donald Trump's surprise FBI firing upends Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (May 10, 2017)
Senate panel takes up bill to bring AMBER Alert funding to tribes (April 28, 2017)
Bill brings funding for AMBER Alert systems to Indian Country (April 18, 2017)