Tribal leaders pitch Congress on farm bill, Violence Against Women Act

Sen. Mazie Hirono speaks to a packed room about issues in Indian Country. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Members of Congress met with tribal leaders during a two-day Tribal Unity Impact Days event.

Members of Congress met with tribal leaders during a two-day Tribal Unity Impact Days event hosted by the National Congress of American Indians this week.

Tribal leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., carrying a list of concerns they wanted to speak with congressional members and staff about, such as water development, sacred sites, cultural resources, economic development, the opioid epidemic, funding, agriculture, domestic violence, reorganization of the Department of Interior, and self-governance.

“As people and tribal lands are affected by decisions made by the federal government, we appreciate the opportunity to express our concerns and challenges to Congress and the federal government,” said A. Gay Kingman, executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association. “There are promises made in our treaties that need to be kept as well as the recognition of our sovereignty.”

Over the four and half hours, congressional members stood at the podium providing their statements and answering questions. The three issues that came up often: The Farm Bill, the Violence Against Women Act and the court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh.

Farm Bill

The Farm Bill is an all-encompassing bill that includes energy, jobs, agriculture, and more. But for Indian Country, it focuses on nutritional programs and food distribution. The House and Senate each have their own version of the Farm Bill with different language. One crucial piece that Sen. Tina Smith is fighting to keep in the Senate’s version of the bill, along with Sen. John Hoeven and Sen. Steve Daines, is the protection of Native food products from “fraudulent imposters” who try to sell traditional foods, such as Minnesota’s wild rice.

“This is wrong,” Smith said. “We should not allow creative open door for these products will be sold, especially internationally in a way that essentially exploits the culture and the economic opportunity of tribal people and the food that we have.” A couple hopeful inclusions on the bill that she touched on were the “inclusion of tribal products in federal trade promotion efforts” and “expanding the eligibility for the forestry program funding to almost 2,000 tribal colleges.”

With the last few weeks of Congress in session, some members are hopeful they can come to a decision and have the bill signed by the end of the month.

The Violence Against Women Act

This act, also known as VAWA, was modified in 2013 to include tribal jurisdiction to prosecute domestic violence against Native Americans on the reservation by non-Native perpetrators. The act is due for a reauthorization. It expires on Sept. 30. During the event, Sen.Tom Udall said in the past five years there have been 143 arrests of 128 non-Native abusers with 74 convictions.

Even with those numbers, congressional members saw gaps and hope to remedy them. Udall said he hopes to address the gap concerning Native youth and tribal law enforcement. Last December, he introduced a bill called the Native Youth and Tribal Officer Protection Act. This would protect Native American and Alaskan Native children from domestic and family violence because they experience post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, which is 22 percent. This same law would also protect tribal officers during arrests and prosecution of offenders. The bill would also make first-attempted domestic violence a crime. Smith’s proposed bill, who worked with NCAI and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, stays in same spirit and seeks justice for survivors of sexual violence. Rep. Tom Cole later said that they haven’t run into any opposition for including tribal police protection, but it’s more about “people not just understanding and having to explain it.”

Brett Kavanaugh

Just after addressing the issues in Indian Country, elected officials left the room with their take on Judge Kavanaugh and what it would mean for Indian Country.

Sen. Mazie Hirono and her staff did her research on the views of the “troubling nomination” and found Kavanaugh’s views toward Indigenous peoples to be “very lacking.” That’s putting it “kindly,” she said.

“It's a real concern that you have somebody who's going to end up possibly on the Supreme Court who has those kinds of misinformed notions about indigenous people,” Hirono said. “So I did not expect him to be helpful.”

Udall was frank with tribal leaders and said he can’t support the nomination because “the next justice has potential to shape Indian law for decades to come.” That comes from a senator who grew up thinking the “Supreme Court was the last defender of rights.”

Smith and Rep. Raúl Grijalva share similar views of the nomination.

The Alaska Federation of Natives released a statement telling the Senate to reject the nomination. Murkowski, senator of the big state, has a decision to make.

Today, tribal leaders had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with their congressional member to talk about their specific community needs.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

(The educational, nonprofit arm of the National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and it manages business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)

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