Six months after the same committee tore into the FBI for not having any reasonable answers for its failure of Native women, the Trump Administration still seems not to have received the message of urgency.
On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing to consider five bills, all of which concerned various legislative responses to the ongoing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls crisis. The committee was awaiting testimony from the Trump Administration’s department officials before it cleared the five bills it had specifically convened the hearing for.
The only problem was that, despite being made aware of the hearing over a month ago, the testimony of the officials arrived late, and no positions were offered.
Among the officials present to provide testimony was Tracy Toulou, the director of the Office of Tribal Justice at the Department of Justice, and Charles Addington, deputy director of Office of Justice Services at Bureau of Indian Affairs. Also present were Chief Justice Michelle Demmert, of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, and Lynn Malerba, Secretary of the United South & Eastern Tribes.
When pressed, Addington blamed the delay on a slow-moving White House review of the bills and offered a brief apology. “I want to apologize for our testimony being late,” he said. “We will do a better job.”
In a vacuum, the apology might have landed. But the MMIWG issue has been raised time and time again by the Committee, only to face resistance on the House floor or apathy from the Trump Administration—in December, Sen. Jon Tester, of Montana, spit-roasted Addington and an FBI official when they appeared before the committee and, for the most part, shrugged their shoulders and offered no substantive answers when asked why their departments were failing Native women.
On Wednesday, a more muted but similarly perturbed Sen. Tom Udall, of New Mexico, was forced to deliver a repeat performance, noting his “utter frustration” with their lack of preparation and using his opening statement to lay into the Department of Justice and Department of Interior officials.
“If the Department [of Justice] truly ‘stands ready to do its part’ on addressing the MMIW crisis, why is it not prepared for this hearing?” Udall said. “These bipartisan bills are an opportunity for us to transform talk about the importance of improving Tribal public safety into concrete action. I will not abide any more empty words. And Indian Country cannot and should not accept any more lip service. It is past time for the administration to show some follow-through.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, noting Attorney General William Barr’s recent trip to Alaska, reiterated the need for D.C. bureaucrats to “feel it in your heart” if they hope to enact sustainable change for the victims of the crisis. Speaking from the perspective of the smaller Alaskan villages that are rarely visited for photo-ops, Murkowski posed the following question in her opening statement: “These people from Washington DC, they came and they took pictures and now they’re gone and has anything changed? Has anything changed for that community?”
Of the five bills the administration failed to prepare recommendations for, the headliner was S.B. 227, known commonly as Savanna’s Act. As Splinter first reported in December, Savanna’s Act soared through the Senate only to ultimately fall in the House due to Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s efforts to defang the corrective measures the bill contained regarding federal and state police policy. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto re-introduced the bill in January but it has yet to clear the committee or the Senate. (Goodlatte retired from Congress last year.)
Among the updates that were provided on Wednesday, Addington informed the committee that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has updated NamUs, the data system law enforcement offices and BIA use to enter and track missing peoples cases, to include entry field for specific tribes. He added that BIA staff and tribal police have been trained on how to use the updated software.
Responding to a question from Sen. Cortez Masto, Toulou said the DOJ “feels pretty comfortable” with the current state of Savanna’s Act, noting only that there are “some technical issues” they’d still like to work through—the DOJ’s main concern appeared to relate to the punitive measures Savanna’s Act originally set forth for police departments that did not comply with the bill’s mandates. Responding to the same question, Addington said BIA has no concerns with the bill and support its passage.