“Today we gathered as Indian Country to listen to tribal leadership about how we can work together to effectively reclaim our Native communities,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, Iñupiat. “There are many issues that are plaguing our communities and it was important for Indian Affairs to hear from tribal leadership on violent crimes.”
Sweeney, joined by other federal agency leaders and tribal leaders to include Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis and Lt. Gov. Robert Stone, domestic violence advocates, activists working on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women initiatives and members of the board of the National Congress of American Indians held a nationwide listening session, “Reclaiming Our Native Communities,” June 11 at the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona.
Sweeney acknowledged that there is a need to improve partnerships “across the federal government” and between tribal law enforcement, tribal communities, and federal government agencies. The discussions “have informed our discussions within the Department of Interior and Indian Affairs,” to make these collaborations happen, she said.
The issue of violence in Indian Country, especially against Indigenous women and children, has long been in crisis mode. The National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that more than 1.5 million American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, including sexual violence, in their lifetimes, according to a release sent by the Department of the Interior on June 12.
“American Indian and Alaska Native children attempt and commit suicide at rates far higher than those in any other demographic in our nation, and often endure disproportionately high rates of endemic drug abuse, violence, and crime,” the release stated.
Arizona has the dubious distinction of being one of the top jurisdictions for human trafficking. According to the National Congress of American Indians, about 40 percent of the women and girls forced into the sex trade are Native.
Michelle Demmert, Central Council Tlingit and Haida, is the tribe’s elected chief justice and has experienced the “harsh reality” of violence in Indian Country first-hand.
“Alaska Natives are some of the most vulnerable populations in the nation,” said Demmert. “We have the highest number [of missing and murdered Indigenous women] among any state in the union.” In fact, 40 percent of Alaska’s Native communities have no law enforcement presence, and 911 service is nearly non-existent, according to a recent investigation by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica. In fact, Demmert said, the state has just one to 1.4 law enforcement officials per 1 million acres. “How does anyone investigate crimes with that sort of range and magnitude to have to cover?”
Demmert noted that with such thin police presence, it can take hours or even days for any response from law enforcement. “So, when we call for in response to something that's happened in our communities, often it’s the tribal leader who shows up first.” When law enforcement doesn’t do its job … evidence grows cold and oftentimes, if it is an actual crime, it is unprosecuted.”
“These issues discussed today – domestic violence, missing and murdered Native Americans and unsolved cold cases – threaten the very safety and security of all of our tribal members,” said Lewis, who as Gila River governor, hosted the listening session and press conference.
“Having the Department of the Interior bring tribal leaders together today provided a critical opportunity, I would say even a historic opportunity, to talk about these programs that are working and the gaps.”
Other federal officials from the Administration for Native Americans, the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs echoed tribes’ concerns and pledged to address gaps in law enforcement, identify agencies that operate in a “silo” mindset with the goal to open them up to partnerships and support better data collection to inform agency response and action plans. “It's important that we recognize those and that we start to work in a true collaborative effort,” said Lewis, who plans to start the process to collaborate with the neighboring Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community on data collection, law enforcement and other efforts to address violence.
Intergovernmental and interagency collaboration, promised resources from legislation and data collection to better inform law enforcement were also part of tribes’ concerns, and were mentioned frequently throughout the press conference.
The issue of not just arresting, but prosecuting suspects, under the Major Crimes Act, in which federal agencies have jurisdiction came into the discussion. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute some 67 percent of all sexual abuse cases referred to their offices.
Kate McGregor, Interior’s deputy chief of staff who, according to the agency, is “exercising the authority of Deputy Secretary,” said, “We are having these conversations right now including our partners at the Department of Justice on what exactly needs to be done [to increase prosecutions]. Is it better data collection? Is it using better forensic evidence to make sure that you can get a prosecution that's successful? We're looking at all of those options and seeing how we can better leverage what tools are already out there.”
Urban Native communities weren’t forgotten. “The Administration for Native Americans has partnered recently with urban Indian health facilities across the country,” said Health and Human Services Deputy Assistant Secretary for Native Americans and ANA Commissioner Jean Hovland, Flandreau Santee Sioux. Data collection is also an important “first step” in determining what direction to direct activities and resources, she said.
Lewis emphasized that his tribe isn’t waiting on federal action, however. The tribe has implemented the tribal provisions of the Violence Against Women Act. A newly-created cross-departmental response team will “ensure that tribal policies and data collection are in place to make sure our citizens – our children to our women to our elders to our men – don’t go missing,” he said. Lewis also said that the tribe now requires all non-enrolled citizens who reside within the reservation to register with the government.
“There are a number of women in this community who have led by example,” said Sweeney, “and I appreciate you and all of our sisters paving the way, making that trail, breaking the trail for the rest of us to have the courage to stand up and advocate in the manner that you see so many women coming together today … in such a dark subject.
“This is a priority for us.”
Follow Deb Krol, Jolon Indian, on Twitter - @DebKrol