Nations to Nation: Tribal leaders on Capitol Hill

Tribal leaders take to Capitol Hill to talk with members of Congress about the issues facing Indian Country

Entering a packed room in the Dirksen Senate Building, Rep. Deb Haaland stepped to the podium to address tribal leaders. Before she said anything, she was wrapped in a red shawl by Juana Majel-Dixon, Pauma Band of Indians.

She was one of six women from Congress to be gifted a shawl, with the words “Sovereignty and Native Women’s Safety” sewn into the center, over the course of the first day of Tribal Unity Impact Days in Washington D.C.

The shawls are a commemoration of both the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Violence Against Women Act and remembering the countless number of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

Tribal leaders from across the country converged on Capitol Hill this week for the National Congress of American Indians’ annual Tribal Unity Impact Days.

Seventeen members of Congress, as well an official from the Indian Health Service and Department of the Interior, addressed a packed room of tribal leaders on the first of a two-day event exploring a variety of issues facing Indian Country.

A number of topics were touched on over the course of the day, ranging from reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, Advanced Appropriations, Indian Health Service funding, the Remove the Stain Act, infrastructure in Indian Country and much more.

With such a large number of speakers rolling through the room where the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs normally meets, few had the time to take questions from the audience after giving their prepared remarks. However most, if not all, relayed a message to the tribal leaders in attendance that their office doors were always open for them to come visit.

The second day of Tribal Unity Impact Days is almost exclusively set for Capitol Hill meetings for tribal leaders.

Citing statistics of violence that Native women face, such as the fact American Indian women have murder rates that are 10-times higher than the national average, Rep. Haaland said she doesn’t understand how violence against Native women and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women rarely make headlines.

“When I entered Congress this past January, I vowed to make sure that Native voices would finally be heard and I would bring forth the issues that had yet to receive the attention they need and deserve,” Haaland said.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at Tribal Impact Unity Days (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman)
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Rep. Norma Torres in her shawl (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman)

While Rep. Haaland spoke in national terms, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, spoke specifically to violence against Indigenous women in Alaska; and the statistics were grim. Sen. Murkowski said one out of every three communities in Alaska has no local law enforcement which allows bad situations to perpetuate.

“Alaska communities that have no public safety and cannot be reached by road, which are 80 percent of the communities, have about four times as many sex offenders per capita than the national average,” Murkowski said. “Think about what that does. You’ve got the perpetrators that continue unabated. You have victims that can’t get out cause there’s no road. You have levels of violence that continue in the darkness because when somebody tries to bring it out to the light, there’s nothing that happens because you can’t prosecute, because you have no way to collect evidence. You have no law enforcement, it’s he-said-she-said, and it just continues.”

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Rep. Betty McCollum has shawl draped over her shoulders (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman)
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Sen. Lisa Murkowski poses for photo after being gifted shawl (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman)

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019 passed the House on a 263 to 158 vote in April and has yet to be voted on by the Senate.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said feedback from Native communities was important in passing the strongest and best possible version of the Violence Against Women Act.

“Understand how important your place at the table is in these discussions,” Speaker Pelosi said.

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"Thanks for the warm welcome," Speaker Pelosi said after being wrapped in shawl (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman)

Although violence against Native women is a serious matter, not everything was doom and gloom on the day. In a bipartisan showing, Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, took to the podium together as the penultimate speakers. They are the vice-chairman and chairman, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

They gave a quick overview of the work the committee has undertaken since the start of the year, including passing 23 bills through committee, 11 of which that have passed the Senate and are awaiting debate on the House floor.

“We appreciate the bipartisan nature of our committee,” Sen. Hoeven said.

“We are on the same page,” added Sen. Udall, who is retiring at the end of next year. “We love to work with each other.”

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Sen. Tom Udall, left, and Sen. John Hoeven cracked a couple jokes and spoke of their bipartisan work while addressing tribal leaders (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman)

Similar to the bipartisan way of thinking, National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said they are not a partisan organization.

“National Congress [of American Indians] is not Democrat or Republican, I personally believe we oughta be ‘I’ for Indian,” Keel said.

Another topic that was broached by more than one speaker was advanced appropriations, specifically calling for the full and proper funding of the Indian Health Service. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, R-Oklahoma, shared stories of his experiences with the Indian Health System.

He spoke of investing in technology and creating standard operating procedures that should be the same no matter where you go. Additionally, he discussed the difficulty Indian health facilities face when it comes to getting top talent to come work for them.

Although he said it’s not an overnight fix, one way to help address that problem is to look no further than the Cherokee Nation W. W. Hastings Hospital; which is partnering with Oklahoma State University to become a medical school.

According to Rep. Mullin, most doctors stay within a 90-mile radius from where they complete their residency.

“If we can recruit from our backyards, then we don’t have to deploy them, we can send them back home. We have to get a better system down to where we’re recruiting our aunts, our uncles, our cousins, our brothers and our sisters,” Rep. Mullin said. “Then we train them and allow them to go back home. That’s investing in our workforce.”

All in all, it was a day full of conversation on Native issues and set the table for tribal leaders to educate and advocate members of Congress on problems facing their communities. While there is much work to be done, it is clear American Indian and Alaska Native are making themselves heard in the nation’s capital.

That notion was made clear by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who discussed her legislation to help Indian Country more than her presidential run. She said she’s willing to continue to support legislation, Democrat or Republican, if it helps Indian country and that hill visits can affect legislation.

“I know some of you traveled a very long way to be here and let me tell you, it really makes a difference,” the presidential hopeful said. “When you come to Washington and meet people face to face, it matters.”

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

(Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.)

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