National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel addresses the organization's winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Leader of National Congress of American Indians slams 'fugitives' bill

The leader of the National Congress of American Indians singled out a controversial bill as a threat to tribal sovereignty as he called on lawmakers to work on more productive ways to improve public safety in tribal communities.

During the organization's winter session in Washington, D.C., this week, President Jefferson Keel described H.R.4864, also known as the No Haven for Dangerous Fugitives Act, as one of the "emerging challenges" on Capitol Hill. He called it an "unwarranted bill that disrespects the right and proven ability of tribal governments to exercise criminal jurisdiction on their own lands."

"If Congress is serious about strengthening public safety in and around Indian Country, it should build on tribal nations' successes," Keel said on Tuesday.

One of the ways to do that, Keel said, is to reauthorize the Tribal Law and Order Act. As NCAI was holding its session, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs considered S.1953, a bill to extend the 2010 law, at a business meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

Like H.R.4864, S.1953 is a Republican-led bill. The sponsor is Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), who serves as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and who spoke at NCAI's conference.

"We also need to empower Indian tribes with more tools to combat crime and to keep citizens safe and secure," Hoeven said on Wednesday morning, before the bill was approved at the business meeting.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Business Meeting February 14, 2018

But unlike the fugitives bill, S.1953 enjoys support in Indian Country. Hoeven noted that its provisions, including one to require the collection of data on human trafficking of Native Americans, were drafted in consultation with tribes and other key partners.

And while S.1953 does not have any Democratic sponsors at this point, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minnesota), a new member of Congress and the newest member of the committee, and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) worked together on an amendment to the bill. The lawmakers -- dubbed the "end of the dais caucus" in recognition of their seats across from each other in the committee's meeting and hearing room -- said their provision will direct about $4 million in federal funds to help tribes improve safety in their communities.

"I know that this will provide really important help to improve tribal governments' access to criminal background information," said Smith, who was appointed to the Senate following the resignation of Democrat Al Franken, a former long-time member of the committee.

During the meeting, Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the committee, pointed out that members of both parties are working together on related tribal safety measures. He counted "no fewer than six legislative bills" to address key issues like violence against Native women, missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and funding for AMBER Alert systems in Indian Country.

"I strongly support our concentration on these public safety issues," said Udall, who delivered the Congressional response to Keel's State of Indian Nations address on Monday, which served as the opening of NCAI's winter session.

In addition to extending the Tribal Law and Order Act, Keel called on Congress to "provide a reliable funding stream for tribal justice systems," a goal reflected in another bipartisan effort. S.1870, the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act, ensures that five percent of the national Crime Victims Fund goes to Indian Country.

According to the federal government, American Indians and Alaska Natives are victimized at rates far higher than the rest of the nation. Yet current data shows that fewer than one percent of the fund benefits them, a dollar amount so small that one lawmaker likened it to nothing at all.

"I’m sure zero isn’t the number. Just saying," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) told NCAI on Tuesday, describing the existing situation. He is a co-sponsor of H.R.4608, a companion version of the funding bill, also known as the SURVIVE Act.

A tribal official from Issa's state later underscored the disparity. NCAI Secretary Juana Majel-Dixon, a council member from the Pauma Band of Luiseno Indians and a leader in efforts to protect Native women from violence, said states are including tribal populations in their applications for federal public safety grants yet the dollars aren't making it to Indian Country.

"Did anyone of you know that?" Majel-Dixon said on Wednesday. "Did anyone of you know that's what they are doing with your money?"

If the SURVIVE Act becomes law, it would set aside $150 million a year to tribes and service providers in Indian Country. The bill cleared the Committee on Indian Affairs in December and awaits further action in the Senate.

With the Violence Against Women Act due for reauthorization this year, Keel on Tuesday called on Congress to expand on the 2013 version of the law, which recognizes the "inherent" jurisdiction of tribes to arrest, prosecute and punish non-Indians who commit crimes against their partners. Tribes want to be able to extend their authority to cover additional crimes, such as those against youth, families and public safety officers.

There are bipartisan efforts to do just that. In December, Sen. Udall introduced S.2233, the Native Youth and Tribal Officer Protection Act, to build on the historic tribal jurisdiction provisions of VAWA.

"This bill addresses three critical but unanticipated gaps in the 2013 special jurisdiction restoration: attempted domestic violence, family violence committed against Native children, and crimes against tribal law enforcement," Udall said at listening session on Monday that focused on gaps in protections and services for Native women.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who spoke to NCAI on Tuesday, is a co-sponsor of S.2233. She called it another way to address the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which she said "deprived our tribal governments of the opportunity to make Indian Country safe."

Udall, Murkowski and Smith are also partnering on S.1986, the Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act. The bill recognizes tribal jurisdiction over crimes like sexual assault and trafficking, which aren't covered by the 2013 version of VAWA.

"Both are down payments, I think, on the day we will finally overturn Oliphant and enable tribes to fully exercise their powers of self-governance," Murkowski said to applause from tribal leaders. S.2233 and S.1986 have been referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs, which has not yet scheduled a hearing.

H.R.4864, the No Haven for Dangerous Fugitives Act, has not been scheduled for a hearing in the House either. Even before Keel spoke out against it, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe slammed it as a bill with "racist undertones" and James Swan, an activist and founder of the United Urban Warrior Society in South Dakota, called it an infringement on treaty rights.

If the measure becomes law, anyone who "enters or leaves Indian country" while being wanted on felony charges, or while being asked to give testimony in a criminal case, could be charged with a crime under a section of the U.S. Code regarding fugitives. The bill ignores existing tribal extradition procedures

H.R.4864 does include language that calls on the federal, state and local governments to "respect tribal sovereignty at all times." It also encourages these governments to engage in "reasonable efforts" to enter into extradition agreements with tribes.

But such language is unenforceable and would not protect anyone who might be accused of entering or leaving Indian Country.

The bill's prospects are uncertain, at least in the current session of Congress. It was introduced by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota), who is not seeking re-election because she is running for governor of South Dakota.

The only co-sponsor of the bill is Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina). He's also leaving Congress to return to work in the legal system. His district in South Carolina does not include any tribes.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
GOP co-sponsor of bill with 'racist undertones' won't seek re-election (January 31, 2018)
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe slams GOP bill with 'racist undertones' (January 30, 2018)
Trending in News
More Headlines