Move comes as Republicans propose bill that would make it harder for tribes to put non-Native abusers behind bars, advocates say
Donald Trump has signed an executive order creating a White House taskforce on missing and murdered indigenous women.
The task force will be overseen by Attorney General William Barr and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. It is tasked with developing protocols to apply to new and unsolved cases and creating a multi-jurisdictional team to review cold cases.
Trump on Tuesday called the scourge of violence facing Native American women and girls sobering and heartbreaking.
However, the move comes as Republicans in the US Senate want to make it harder for tribes to put non-Native abusers behind bars.
The National Institute of Justice estimates that 1.5 million Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetime, including many who are victims of sexual violence. On some reservations, federal studies have shown women are killed at a rate over 10 times the national average.
For years, when Native women were abused on reservations by non-Indians, no legal action would be taken.
Deborah Parkers nation, Tulalip Tribes, was prohibited under federal law from prosecuting or even arresting non-Native perpetrators and the US attorneys who had jurisdiction declined the majority of cases.
So in 2013, Parker, a board member of the National Indigenous Womens Resource Center went to Washington DC, spoke with lawmakers, and helped pass legislation that finally meant non-Native abusers would face consequences on her reservation and across the US.
After the law changed, Parkers tribe became one of the first to implement it. Shortly after, a tribal citizen was assaulted and raped by the non-Native father of her children. Tribal police responded. It was the 20th time they had interacted with the perpetrator, but the first time they had the power to arrest him.
According to a report from the National Congress of American Indians, in the five years after the restoration of tribal jurisdiction, 18 tribes had made 143 arrests. 85 of those non-Native defendants accounted for 378 prior contacts with tribal police 378 calls to tribal police who, at the time, couldnt do anything in response.
But last week, Iowa senator Joni Ernst introduced Senate Republicans version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization bill. While the legislation includes provisions to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), advocates say it rolls back gains made in 2013.
Ernsts proposal, if adopted, would give non-Native abusers who dont want to comply with tribal laws a way out. The law makes it easier for abusers facing prosecution in tribal court to skip the process and appeal to federal court. The bill also weakens sovereign immunity for tribes by allowing convicted abusers to sue if they feel their civil rights have been violated.
According to the National Indigenous Womens Resource Center the legislation destabilizes tribal justice systems by imposing undue burdens and restrictions on tribal courts far beyond those imposed on federal and state courts including audits by the US attorney general.
Its supporting perpetrators more that the victim. Its allowing perpetrators more ways to get out of their crime, Parker says.
Native women face higher rates of violence than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. A DoJ study found that 97% of Native victims have been abused by somebody who is non-Native. Since the late 1970s, tribes have been prohibited from prosecuting Non-natives for most crimes committed on tribal land. While violent crime trended down nationally in recent decades, in Indian country it has skyrocketed.
We know where the sexual predators go. They are preying on Native women in numbers that are just offensive because they know that they can commit offenses with impunity, said Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator for Alaska, at a Senate Indian Affairs committee hearing last Thursday.
On the same day Ernst introduced her controversial legislation, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee passed two bills to improve data collection, reporting and police response to missing and murdered Indigenous women. While the legislation had faced political holds up Savannas Act was blocked from going to a House vote by one lame duck Republican in 2017 both bills unanimously passed committee with equal support from Republicans and Democrats Thursday.
Ernsts bill is unlikely to pass (Murkowski, notably, has not signed onto it). It has no support from Democrats and only 10 Republican co-sponsors. But advocates worry that the Senate Republican version of VAWA signals the safety of Native women could become a partisan battle. Meanwhile, the landmark 1994 VAWA law has been lapsed for nearly a year, affecting funding for domestic abuse programs.
It is predominantly Republicans who are telling tribal Nations that we are incapable of protecting our people, says Parker. Weve worked with folks from both sides of the aisle but at this time to make it a political game is incredibly harmful.
In April, 33 House Republicans joined Democrats to pass a comprehensive VAWA reauthorization. The house reauthorization bill expands on gains made in 2013 and restores tribal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators for the crimes of sexual assault, rape, sex trafficking and some instances of child abuse. The bill was introduced with 47 Democrat co-sponsors, but no Republican support.
I am a mom. I want to make sure my daughter isnt abused, says Parker. And if we have well supported court systems criminals will know. They will know not to come on our reservations and harm our women.
Associated Press contributed to this report