Chief Justice Michelle Demmert of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska addresses the National Congress of American Indians 76th annual convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 22, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Senate committee takes up #MMIW bills amid doubts about protections for Native women

With expanded protections for Native women and children still in doubt on Capitol Hill, key lawmakers are advancing legislation to address the crisis of the missing and murdered in tribal communities.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is holding a business meeting on Wednesday to approve two critical bills. One is S.227, which is known as Savanna's Act in honor of Savanna Marie Greywind, a Spirit Lake Nation woman who went missing from her home in North Dakota in 2017 and was murdered.

Miraculously, Greywind's unborn child survived. And the two non-Indians who kidnapped and brutalized her were brought to justice, a rarity for Native victims of crime.

The other bill on the agenda is S.982, the Not Invisible Act, whose title offers some promise to the countless numbers of missing, murdered and trafficked Native Americans. They remain loved by their families and in their communities but many believe the federal government, as a trustee to the first Americans, isn't doing enough to bring them back home.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs - Legislative Hearing to receive testimony on S.227, S.288, S.290, S.982 & S.1853 - June 19, 2019

"As our people are slaughtered and go missing, the United States turns a blind eye while denying our right to prosecute offenders and access law enforcement resources," Chief Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Tribe told the committee at a hearing in June.

"The loss of our people due to this crisis should inspire deep shame within every branch of government and every American citizen," added Malerba, who also serves as the Secretary of the United South and Eastern Tribes.

But while the committee, which typically acts in a bipartisan fashion, is moving forward with a favorable Indian Country agenda, the Republicans who control the U.S. Senate adamantly refuse to bring up another critical bill -- H.R.1585, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act -- in the chamber. Native women say their lives, along with those of their children, are at risk as a result.

"For so long, our women and children have been disproportionately abused," Chief Justice Michelle Demmert of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska said as Native women leaders wore red during the National Congress of American Indians 76th annual convention last month.

The red shawls worn by the women sent a simple message to Washington, D.C. Congress can "Protect Sovereignty and Native Women’s Safety" by reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, which expired earlier this year.

But achieving that goal has not been easy even after the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.1585 on April 4, more than 200 days ago. The bill expands on the 2013 version of VAWA by recognizing tribal authority over non-Indians who commit sexual assault, sex trafficking and stalking. These crimes are not covered by current law.

H.R.1585 also recognizes the inherent right of tribes to prosecute anyone who abuses children or commits crimes against law enforcement in their communities. And it begins to address the #MMIW crisis and issues facing urban Indians, whose needs are often ignored in national legislation.

Despite the beneficial language, Demmert, who also testified at the hearing in June, said Native women leaders are troubled by what they have been seeing on Capitol Hill. Republicans have circulated their own version of VAWA that "takes us back decades," she told NCAI.

"The jurisdictional provisions they are proposing -- it's very offensive," Demmert said in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 22. "It provides a really paternalistic view of our courts and imposes their views on us."

So far, though, Republicans have not made public their version of VAWA. Amid the drama, all 47 Democrats and Independents in the Senate joined forces last week to introduce S.2843, which preserves the improvements included in H.R.1585.

"We must continue to respect tribal sovereignty and ensure that we are doing the most to protect the most vulnerable among us, particularly children," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the sponsor of S.2843, said on November 13. She is the senior-most Democrat on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, some of whose Republican members have questioned whether tribes can exercise jurisdiction over non-Indians.

Not every member of the GOP feels the same way about Indian Country. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is the sponsor of Savanna's Act and is a supporter of other legislation to expand tribal authority over all offenders, regardless of race.

"Our Native women deserve protection everywhere," Murkowski said during NCAI's winter meeting in Washington earlier this year.

But no Republicans have signed onto S.2843. That includes Murkowski and other GOP members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs -- there are seven total.

"We need to all be united in recognizing that H.R.1585 provisions be what the Senate adopts," said Demmert, who serves as co-chair of Violence Against Women Act task force for NCAI, the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the U.S.

The business meeting takes place at 2:30pm Eastern on Wednesday in Room 628 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. It will be immediately followed by an oversight hearing and legislative hearing on Native veterans.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notices
Business Meeting to consider S. 227 & S. 982 (November 20, 2019)
Oversight Hearing on “Recognizing the Sacrifice: Honoring A Nation’s Promise to Native Veterans” & Legislative Hearing to receive testimony on S. 1001 & S. 2365 (November 20, 2019)

Join the Conversation
S.2843 - Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act

National Congress of American Indians 76th Annual Convention - #NCAIAnnual19

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