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Tribal advocates urge passage of anti-violence bills

WASHINGTON – Native American advocates told lawmakers on a Senate panel Wednesday that tribal police should have jurisdiction over violent cases committed by non-Natives on tribal land and the federal government should improve databases tracking such crimes.

All four witnesses at the Senate Committee for Indian Affairs hearing expressed the need for a more cohesive strategy to address law enforcement needs in tribal communities.

Five pending bills look to address these problems. First, Senate Bill 290 would expand the authority of tribes to include jurisdiction over violent crimes involving Native children and tribal police officers.

Senate Bill 982, called the Not Invisible Act of 2019, will create a record of violent crimes in tribal communities and an advisory committee on reducing such crime against Native Americans.

Savanna’s Act, or Senate Bill 227, would require the U.S. Justice Department to update federal databases about cases of missing and murdered Native Americans to allow users add a victim’s tribal enrollment information.

Another measure, Senate Bill 288, gives tribes jurisdiction to prosecute sexual-violence crimes committed by non-Native offenders in Indian country. A final bill, Senate Bill 1853, would require federal agencies to report missing tribal persons to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said at Wednesday’s hearing that part of the issue of accessibility for tribal police comes from the lack of law enforcement agencies in general in her state.

One in three Alaska communities have no local police. In communities that don’t have easy access to law enforcement, there are four times as many sex offenders per capita then the national average.

The majority of these sex crimes are committed against indigenous people and Native women in Alaska are over-represented in the domestic violence victim population by 250%, according to testimony Wednesday.

Tracy Toulou, director of Justice Department’s Office of Tribal Justice, testified that his agency would like to work with the committee on language within SB 982 to ensure it achieves its goal of forming a regulatory committee.

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., asked how Toulou believed this would be an issue.

“I think we have a complicated process to work with other agencies and we have special responsibilities and duties as the Department of Justice. We coordinate well with the Department of Interior. Who is coordinating those activities outside of the department… is something we would want to talk to you about and how that gets done,” Toulou said.

The three other witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing were Charles Addington of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs; Michelle Demmert, chief justice of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska; and Lynn Malerba, secretary of the nonprofit United South & Eastern Tribes Protection.

Committee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Wednesday that “addressing public safety and law enforcement issues within Indian country” is a top priority for the panel.

“Today, we heard from two administration officials and two tribal officials about how these five bills will help provide tribal communities and law enforcement officials with important tools to both prevent and investigate cases involving missing and murdered Native people,” Hoeven  said. “As chairman, I will continue to work with my colleagues on these pieces of legislation and the important matters that they intend to resolve.”

The committee also unanimously advanced two bills to the Senate floor that deal with acquisition of tribal lands and improvements for tribal transportation and safety.

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