Tribal leaders and federal officials participate in the "Reclaiming Native Communities" roundtable in Sacaton, Arizona, on June 11, 2019. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Key lawmakers renew efforts to protect Native women from violence

With the Violence Against Women Act mired in partisan politics, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is hoping to turn the focus back to the most vulnerable in Indian Country.

Six members of the U.S. Senate -- four Democrats and two Republicans -- joined forces on Thursday to introduce the Bridging Agency Data Gaps and Ensuring Safety (BADGES) for Native Communities Act [PDF]. The bill aims to help tribes, states and the federal government address the crisis of the missing and murdered, and it seeks to improve coordination among law enforcement in tribal communities.

“For too long, poor coordination, limited data, and an unacceptable lack of federal resources have erected enormous barriers to justice all across Indian Country,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the sponsor of the measure, said in a press release.

"When public safety programs are underresourced, crimes are underreported and cases go unsolved," said Udall, who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "Our bill addresses these barriers head on by increasing the efficiency of federal law enforcement programs and providing Tribes and states with the tools they need to ensure that Native communities are safe and strong.”

The BADGES Act is being taken up by the committee at a hearing on June 19. Four additional bills that address a wide range of public safety issues in Indian Country by expanding on the landmark tribal jurisdiction provisions of the 2013 version of VAWA are also on the agenda.

S.227, also known as Savanna's Act, is among the items up for consideration. The bill is named in honor of Savanna Marie Greywind, a Spirit Lake Nation woman who went missing and was murdered in North Dakota in 2017. Just 22 years old at the time, she was eight months pregnant when she was kidnapped -- her child miraculously survived the brutal attack.

"Last year I met Savanna's family, spoke with her mother and held her baby," said Paula Antoine, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who serves on the board of Dakota Rural Action,a grassroots group based in neighboring South Dakota.. "The sorrow in their eyes is held by so many people as the number of missing and murdered indigenous rises daily. The unfortunate families who carry the burden of a missing sister, mother or daughter or son cannot be ignored."

A prior version of the measure, which requires the federal government to account for the numbers of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, nearly became law during the last session of Congress. But a Republican who was on his way out of office held it up at the last minute even though it enjoys bipartisan support.

"We have a duty of moral trust toward our nation’s first people and we must all be part of the solution," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who introduced the bill in January and serves on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Greywind's case is notable in that two people were brought to justice for the crime, with both serving life in prison for her death and for the kidnapping of her child. One of the defendants has since filed an appeal to his sentence in hopes of reducing his punishment.

Additionally, the crime did not occur in Indian Country but in Fargo, North Dakota's most populous city. Though the overwhelming majority of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in urban areas, as Greywind did, some advocates contend the bill named in her honor does not include any provisions to address their needs.

"We support legislation that is going to create safer environments for Native people," said Esther Lucero, who is Navajo and Latina, and serves as chief executive officer of the Seattle Indian Health Board in Washington state. "We will always stand with our tribal partners, but we need legislators to understand that 71 percent of the American Indian and Alaska Native population live in urban areas, and they are essentially excluded from this legislation."

Last November, as the prior Savanna's Act was advancing on Capitol Hill, a division of Lucero's organization released a historic report which exposed the gaps in documenting cases missing and murdered Native women and girls. But the new version of the bill was introduced without any provisions suggested by these urban advocates.

“We are glad that our report has helped bring attention to the MMIWG cause and the issues around data, but that report specifically highlights the epidemic and data issues in urban areas," said Abigail Echo-Hawk, the director of the Urban Indian Health Institute and co-author of the landmark Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report.

"Now it is being used by legislators to advance political agendas, while the people it is meant to serve are being ignored,” asserted Echo-Hawk, who is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation. Some of the sponsors of Savanna's Act were present during an event in the nation's capital where Lucero and Echo-Hawk unveiled the report.

The provisions of S.227 apply to Indian lands and lands owned by Alaska Native corporations -- metropolitan areas aren't mentioned at all. Despite the oversight, a number of tribes and Indian organizations support the bill.

“In recent years, our communities have had to struggle with the loss of our missing loved ones, and this bill would provide much-needed resources to help address the alarming rate of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples,” said Vice President Myron Lizer of the Navajo Nation.

Another measure being heard next week is S.288, the Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act. The bipartisan bill expands on VAWA by recognizing tribal authority over non-Indians who commit sexual assault, sex trafficking and stalking.

“An alarming number of Native people endure violence in their lifetimes—including women, children, and police officers. We know that these crimes are often committed by non-Native people in Indian Country,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minnesota), who is the newest Democratic member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “Yet, tribes are unable to take action against these offenders and the federal government is failing to investigate and prosecute these crimes. We need to make sure tribes are able to seek and get justice for their members, and for survivors."

A companion bill also expands on VAWA. S.290, the Native Youth and Tribal Officer Protection Act, ensures that tribes can arrest, prosecute and sentence non-Indians who commit crimes against children and against law enforcement.

“Too often victims of violence in Indian Country never see justice. Our tribal citizens deserve better,” said Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, speaking in support of S.288 and S.290. "These important bills will help ensure that tribal governments, just like state and local governments, are able to prosecute offenders who prey on their citizens or commit crimes against their law enforcement officers.”

The fifth item on the agenda is S.982, the Not Invisible Act. The bill includes provisions to address the crisis of missing, murdered and trafficked Native Americans by improving coordination among federal agencies and by including survivors of trafficking and family members of the missing and murdered on a new advisory committee.

"For the protection of Native families and communities, the passage of this act is necessary.," Principal Chief Bill John Baker of the Cherokee Nation said in an opinion published on Indianz.Com. "With best practices being shared and the proposed advisory committee, we can successfully address the crisis that has plagued our tribes for decades. We can drive down the numbers through education, awareness and with better policing and prosecuting tools."

Baker pointed out that the U.S. House version of the Not Invisible Act is the first in history to be introduced by the lawmakers who are citizens of federally recognized tribes, including the first two Native women in Congress. H.R.2438 is sponsored by Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma).

"It is crucial that we not wait any longer to raise awareness about violence against Native Americans, especially women and children. The statistics are shocking," Baker wrote.

An empty red dress is seen at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington as part of "The REDress Project," an installation by Métis artist Jaime Black that raises awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer from the highest rate of victimization of any racial or ethnic group, according to numerous federal reports. Data shows that most perpetrators are from another race, highlighting the need for tribes to be able to hold all offenders accountable.

Another report confirmed that Native women suffer from the second-highest homicide rate in the U.S. Most Native victims of homicide are young and most of the offenders are non-Native.

The 2013 version of VAWA was a step toward addressing the "shocking" statistics. Yet prominent Republican lawmakers have continued to question their constitutionality even though non-Indians who have been held accountable under the law have not complained of mistreatment.

But with Democrats in control of the House, the chamber was able to pass H.R.1585, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, in April. The bill expands on the 2013 tribal jurisdiction provisions even includes provisions to address the #MMIW crisis and issues facing urban Indians.

The bill, however, has yet to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate. Democrats have repeatedly tried to pressure and shame their colleagues across the aisle into taking action, to no avail.

"Thanks to the work of some of my colleagues in both chambers, it also brings renewed attention to violence against Native American women who are so often overlooked," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), who is the Democratic minority leader in the Senate.

According to Republicans, H.R.1585 includes provisions that go beyond the intent of VAWA. The most controversial ones, besides the tribal language, address gun violence and protections for transgendered individuals.

The lack of GOP support -- only 33 voted in favor of H.R.1585 on April 4 -- gives Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the Republican majority leader in the Senate, little incentive to bring the bill up for consideration.

And Republican co-sponsors of bills like the BADGES Act, Savanna's Act, the Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act, the Native Youth and Tribal Officer Protection Act and the Not Invisible Act have done little, publicly, so far to pressure their leader into action. Next week's hearing gives them a chance to speak up.

"We must do more to ensure public safety in our Native communities," said Sen. Martha McSally (R-Arizona), who is the newest member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

"This is why I am proud to work with my colleagues on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on legislation to give tribal law enforcement the tools they need by expanding access to federal criminal data bases, streamlining recruitment and retention procedures, and supporting best practices for investigating and prosecuting cases in Indian Country," said McSally, whose staff participated in a public safety roundtable with tribal leaders and Trump administration officials on Tuesday,

The "Reclaiming Native Communities" event, which took place on the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, "was about hearing from tribal leadership, Indian Country, advocates, and communities,” said Tara Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native woman to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior.

“This is a priority for the Department and the Trump administration," said Sweeney. "We need to stop the escalating cycle of violence for our Native communities.”

A representative of Interior is expected to testify at the upcoming hearing, which takes place at 2:30pm Eastern on June 19 in Room 628 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. A witness list has not yet been made public.

Today, Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis met with Katharine MacGregor, Acting Deputy Secretary-Department of Interior/ Assistant...

Posted by Gila River Indian Community on Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice
Legislative Hearing to receive testimony on S. 227, S. 288, S. 290 & S. 982 (June 19, 2019)

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