Lawmakers pressed the Trump administration on Wednesday to respond with urgency in addressing violence against Native American women and children after they say two officials arrived at a key U.S. Senate hearing unprepared to take concrete positions on a slate of legislation.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held the hearing in Washington to review five bipartisan measures aimed at tackling domestic violence, homicides and disappearances on tribal lands.
The hearing followed recent pledges among Justice and Interior department officials to address gender violence in tribal communities as concerns mount over high rates of victimization. It also came amid a national movement to increase awareness of the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of Native American women.
"It is only fair to question the sincerity of claims to a 'renewed commitment,'" U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, said at the hearing after expressing "utter frustration" with both departments.
Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota and the chairman of the committee, said the departments had failed to meet a deadline to pre-file written testimony ahead of the hearing. He directed representatives from both departments to explain why testimony had been filed late, especially after they had received a month's notice, and he gave them until July 8 to file further testimony with "definitive conclusions" on the bills.
Tracy Toulou, director of the Justice Department Office of Tribal Justice, apologized, saying the bills are complex and require wide review within the department. He underscored that the department has heightened its commitment to improving public safety in tribal communities, especially following a visit by U.S. Attorney General William Barr in May to Alaska.
Toulou, a longtime Justice Department official, said the trip had shown the department's the consequences of "historically inadequate support" for public safety.
"During the trip, Attorney General Barr promised to be mindful of the urgency that underscores requests for support from Native communities," Toulou said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said during the hearing that roughly 40% of more than 200 Alaska Native villages do not have law enforcement.
Meanwhile, Charles Addington, the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Office of Justice Services, also apologized for the late filing of testimony, saying it had gotten held up during a clearance process. His department oversees BIA police, who serve as the primary day-to-day law enforcement presence on some U.S. reservations.
When questioned directly, he said that the Interior Department would support Savanna's Act, one of the five bills before the Senate Committee. It proposes to increase tribal law enforcement's access to criminal databases, increase data collection on missing persons cases and set new guidelines for law enforcement's response to reports of missing Native Americans.
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Both Addington and Toulou agreed generally with the intent of the bills, with most concerns over the legislation appearing to stem from "technical issues," or details about how the initiatives would be executed.
The other bills before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs seek to expand coordination among federal agencies responsible for improving public safety on tribal lands, and expand tribes' ability to prosecute non-Native Americans in sex assault cases and crimes against law enforcement and children.
U.S. federal law gives tribes only a narrow set of instances in which they can pursue prosecutions of people who aren't Native American, including when a woman is assaulted by someone she knows.
"Criminals are free to offend with impunity," said Lynn Malerba, who is chief of the Mohegan Tribe and testified Wednesday.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont, introduced two bills Wednesday to deal with the crisis. The first bill requires a study of ways to improve reporting of missing Native Americans and a look at the effects of methamphetamine and other illegal drugs on violent crime in tribal communities. The bill’s title is the Finding and Investigating Native Disappearance, or FIND Act.
“As I travel around Montana, I often hear, too often, that it takes up to two weeks to receive reports of missing family members because of inefficient law enforcement. I also know many of these horrendous crimes in Indian Country are related to substance abuse, meth, alcohol, other,” Daines said at the hearing.
The second Daines bill requires every federal government agency to report annual data about missing Native American cases — solved and unsolved.
In many cases, Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement doesn’t have enough manpower to police communities better, said Charles Addington, director of BIA’s Office of Justice Services.
“A lot of times what we see is officers, tribal officers, just don’t have the resources," Addington said. "They’re too busy going to calls rather than to do something proactive.”
Addington said that he would work with Daines on the senator’s bills.
Native Americans make up 6.7% of Montana’s population, but 2% of Montana's missing persons reports. Because the count of missing and murdered American Indians is poorly kept, the assumption is that number is higher still. Indigenous women are more than half of those who cannot be found.