WASHINGTON ― The Senate is finally focusing on the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, and the Trump administration sent over two top officials to weigh in on crucial legislation in a Wednesday hearing ― except neither came prepared to say anything definitive about any of the bills on the agenda.
Tracy Toulou, the director of the Office of Tribal Justice at the Department of Justice, and Charles Addington, the deputy bureau director of the Office of Justice Services at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, were invited four weeks ago to testify in the Indian Affairs Committee hearing. They had one job ― one job! ― to discuss the merits of the five bills on the agenda, all of which relate to violence against Native women or children.
Not only did Toulou and Addington fail to provide written testimony to the committee in time for the hearing ― a violation of committee rules ― but they couldn’t say what the administration’s position was on any of the bills because there isn’t a position.
“These are very complicated bills. There are a lot of moving pieces,” Toulou said in his opening remarks. “We’re going to work more effectively to get it through our process in the future.”
“It did get held up in the [Office of Budget and Management] clearance process,” said Addington. “We do apologize and will do a better job of getting it to the committee in a timely manner.”
The issue they were invited to discuss couldn’t be more pressing. Hundreds of Native American women and girls are disappearing and being murdered. Nobody is really sure what is going on, and that’s largely because law enforcement isn’t collecting data on it. At least 506 indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been killed in 71 U.S. cities, including more than 330 since 2010, according to a November report by Urban Indian Health Institute. Even that is likely a gross undercount, per the institute, because they based their report on the scraps of information they could find.
This is all happening as Native women already face appallingly high levels of violence. Eight-four percent of indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime, and in some tribal communities Native women are murdered at 10 times the national average. Murder is the third leading cause of death of Native women ages 10 to 24.
“These statistics are a stain on the nation that purports to be a nation of laws, a nation of justice,” Lynn Malerba, chief of the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut and secretary of the nonprofit United South & Eastern Tribes Protection, told the committee. “As our people are slaughtered and go missing, the United States turns a blind eye…. The loss of our people due to this crisis should inspire deep shame within every branch of government and every American citizen.”
That the administration officials showed up unprepared to testify at a Senate hearing of this nature was particularly insulting. Even the Republican chairman, Sen. John Hoeven (N.D.), didn’t hide his irritation. He gave them until July 8 to provide the committee with the administration’s conclusions on the bills.
“Disappointing,” said Hoeven as a Native Alaskan witness sat on the panel with the administration officials. “I’m still prepared to go forward as we have witnesses that have traveled far to be here.”
Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, expressed his “utter frustration” with both departments. He cited a passage in Toulou’s written testimony stating that “department leadership at the highest levels have expressed a renewed commitment to improving public safety” on tribal lands.
“Where is the evidence of that renewed commitment here today? And if the department truly ‘stands ready to do its part’ ― that’s their quote ― on addressing the … crisis, why is it not prepared for this hearing?” asked Udall, referring to Toulou’s testimony.
“To be clear, the administration’s ‘part’ is to provide views on this legislation in a timely fashion,” he continued. “Both departments have failed in that duty here today. It is only fair to question the sincerity of claims to a ‘renewed commitment.’”
The loss of our people due to this crisis should inspire deep shame within every branch of government and every American citizen.
Chief Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Tribe
Bills on the agenda included Savanna’s Act, which would boost coordination and data collection among all levels of law enforcement ― tribal, local, state and federal ― for cases involving missing and murdered Native women. It would require federal agencies to get recommendations from tribes for enhancing the safety of Native women, and provide statistics on missing and murdered Native women to Congress every year.
The bill is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old Native woman in North Dakota who was eight months pregnant when she went missing in 2017. A neighbor later confessed to killing LaFontaine-Greywind, cutting the baby out of her womb and dumping her body into a river.
Another bill, the Not Invisible Act, would make the federal government step up its role in addressing missing and murdered Native women.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is sponsoring both of those bills, said focusing on data collection is a necessary starting point for understanding what, exactly, is behind all these cases. She told HuffPost in February that one of the “brutal realities” is that indigenous women command more money from human traffickers.
“Part of our problem is we don’t even know what we don’t know,” Murkowski said at the hearing. “So doing a better job and ascertaining whether it’s the data, the collection, these are some of what we’re trying to address.”
Both bills continue to await definitive feedback from the administration.