Federal laws aim to fight violence against indigenous women
Indigenous women nationwide are victims of violence at unprecedented levels. According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, murder is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women. Four out of five indigenous women suffer violence at some point in their life and half are victims of sexual violence.
A report released in November by the Urban Indian Health Institute finds that since 2010 there have been 506 cases of missing or murdered Native women or girls in 71 cities across the country. In Alaska, on the Seward Peninsula, and in Nome the numbers are consistent with those across the country.
U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr declared in May the Department of Justice has both “a legal duty and a moral obligation to address violent crime in Indian Country and to assist tribes in their efforts to provide for safe tribal communities.”
On August 19, U.S. Dept. of Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney led a federal delegation to attend a roundtable discussion in Nome. In an interview with the Nome Nugget, Sweeney said, the round table here was “part of a listening session titled ‘Reclaiming our Native communities’ with the goal to meet with community advocates, tribal leaders and law enforcement to talk about issues that are plaguing our native communities.” The roundtable was not open to the general public, but discussed sexual abuse and domestic violence in the region.
The goal, Sweeney said, is to find ways to solve cases to bring closure and finality to families of victims who were murdered or are still missing. The first listening session was held in Arizona. This was the second such roundtable discussion.
On November 22, Barr announced the launching of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative. This will place 11 coordinators in U.S. Attorney’s offices to develop better coordination in law enforcement responses to cases of missing indigenous women. The plan, called “a national strategy” by Barr, also brings in the FBI’s most advanced response capabilities, improved data collection and analysis, and training for local responders. “This important initiative will further strengthen the federal, state, and tribal law enforcement response to these continuing problems,” said Barr.
“The FBI recognizes the violence that tribal communities face and is fully committed to working with our federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement partners to provide support to those impacted by these crimes,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “We are dedicated to delivering justice and to the FBI’s mission to protect all the people we serve. We reaffirm our focus on allocating resources to serve Native American needs.”
The strategy has three parts. First, the 11 coordinators will be hired to serve with the U.S Attorney’s offices in the states included in the plan. Alaska is one of the 11 states. The first coordinator is already on the job in Montana. The second part of the strategy is the FBI will provide Rapid Deployment Teams where special tools and resources are called for. The third component is Comprehensive Data Analysis. Federally supported databases will identify opportunities to improve missing persons data and share the results with partners in the effort to solve the crimes.
On November 26, President Trump signed an executive order, which establishes a Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. The order states it particularly focuses on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Top officials of the federal government will coordinate and engage with tribal governments. The co-chairs are Attorney General and the Secretary of the Interior. They will name an executive director of the task force. Members of the task force will be the Director of the FBI, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, the Director of the Office on Violence Against Women, the Director of the Office of Justice Services, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior, the Chair of the Native American Subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee and the Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans, Department of Health and Human Services. Co-chairs and members of the task force may designate representatives of their departments to participate on the task force.
The mission and functions of the task force will be to consult with tribal governments on the issues related to the murdered and the missing. This consultation aims to facilitate better response to the problems by law enforcement investigators and prosecutors, in particular in dealing with the challenges presented in cases of female victims. Collecting and sharing data among various jurisdictions and law enforcement agencies will be enhanced and there will be better use of existing criminal databases. This includes the Combined DNA Index System. Another objective is to facilitate formal agreements or arrangements among Federal, State, local, and tribal law enforcement to promote maximally cooperative, trauma-informed responses to cases involving missing and murdered indigenous persons. One year from the date of its creation the task force will submit to the President a written report on the activities and accomplishments of the task force. The task force terminates two years after creation.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and her colleague Senator Cortez Masto of Nevada have sponsored two bills, which in November cleared the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Both bills now head to the Senate floor where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will decide if and when they will be voted on.
Savanna’s Act, one of the two bills, improves tribal access to certain federal crime information databases and mandates that the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Interior consult with Indian tribes on how to further develop these databases and access to them. It requires standardized guidelines for law enforcement response to missing and murdered Native Americans. The objective is to smooth inter-jurisdictional cooperation.
The Not Invisible Act bill requires the Secretary of the Interior to designate an official within the Office of Justice Services in the Bureau of Indian Affairs to coordinate violent crime prevention efforts across federal agencies. It requires the Secretary of the Interior, in coordination with the Attorney General, to establish a commission on violent crime composed of members including law enforcement, service providers, representatives of relevant federal agencies, tribal leaders, survivors and family members. The Commission will make recommendations to the DOI and DOJ on what more the department can do to combat violent crime against Native Americans.
In September 2019 the Senate passed a funding package, which included appropriations bills for FY 2020 on Interior, Environment, Related Agencies; and Commerce, Justice, and Science. Senator Murkowski, who is chair of the Interior Subcommittee, crafted a bill that provides funding to address the crisis of missing, trafficked and murdered indigenous women. The Bureau of Indian Affairs will get $6.5 million. This will provide for cold case work, background checks, equipment needs, and training for the Indian Health Service. The bill also includes language for coordination of data collection among tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement.
What this means locally
Kawerak President and CEO Melanie Bahnke said in an email to The Nome Nugget that there’s been mixed reaction nationally about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women initiative that President Trump announced. “Critics say it doesn’t go far enough and that the task force it creates is only comprised of federal officials, not entities or tribal leaders who have been working on the issue of MMIW,” Bahnke wrote. “Also, critics say a total of $1.5 million to hire a coordinator in each state with a high population of Natives doesn’t go far enough either. Proponents say that this is a start, and to have MMIW recognized as a serious issue at the highest level of office in our country means that the issue is receiving attention.”
Bahnke agreed that it is an improvement that the issue is receiving the attention at the highest level of office in the U.S. She credits the work of Tara Sweeney and AG Barr’s visit with elevating the attention of high level officials to the issue. “We are hopeful that this will bring in additional resources to address the issues that result in MMIW,” Bahnke wrote. “However, while we do have underlying issues that need to be addressed, there are also changes in law enforcement protocols that we would welcome that would strengthen response to reports of MMIW, and the justice system itself and how it responds in general when victims of crime are Alaska Native women.”
As far as how this will make an impact on a local level, she said, she is hopeful that there will be financial resources that follow to address the underlying root causes such as intergenerational trauma, institutional racism and the need for substance abuse treatment, language and cultural revitalization, suicide prevention and wellness resources.
Kawerak co-sponsored a resolution at the most recent AFN convention urging the State to release the names of unsolved murders and missing people; the State has since released that list.
Bahnke said Kawerak submitted a grant application for federal funds for VPSO holding cells in the villages. Kawerak operates the VPSO program and aims to increase the number of VPSO’s in the region, including seeking funding for infrastructure. They are also working with tribal leaders to determine a path forward for Tribal Courts. Kawerak, Bahnke said, also operates a Wellness Program that focuses on youth initiatives; operates the Child Advocacy Center where children, who have been sexually or physically abused receive services, and Kawerak provides a significant sub-grant to the Bering Sea Women’s Group, a separate entity providing services, including a shelter, for women and children who are victims of domestic violence.