Proposed bills designed to protect tribal sovereignty, sharpen investigations of missing persons
By Jeniffer Solis / Nevada Current
In recent years, lawmakers in Nevada have bolstered their efforts to address issues faced by Native Americans in the state, a historically overlooked community.
This year, lawmakers are looking to introduce several bills focused on the needs of tribes in the state.
Draft legislation introduced by state lawmakers for the 2023 Nevada Legislative Session includes measures that would protect inherent treaty rights of Native Americans, enhance the investigation of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous persons, and increase tribal representation in state offices.
One bill draft request, submitted by Assemblywoman Shea Backus, D-Las Vegas, would protect the federal Indian Child Welfare Act in Nevada if it is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is scheduled to decide the constitutionality of the federal law by the end of June 2023.
The decades-old law gives Tribal Nations the right to get involved in child welfare cases involving their citizens, in the hopes of keeping Indigenous children with their extended family or tribe whenever possible.
Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 in response to the wholesale removal of Native children from their families by state and private child welfare agencies at rates far higher than those of non-native children, often without due process.
The separation of Native children from their communities aren’t all historical, say ICWA advocates. The National Indian Child Welfare Association found that 15 states have a disproportionate number of Native children in the foster care system. Native children in Nevada are seven times more likely than non-native children to be removed and placed in foster care.
Beyond that the case has the potential to erode tribal sovereignty and settle Indian law, say tribes in Nevada. Amber Torres, the chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, has called efforts to dismantle the ICWA “a blatant slap in the face to tribal sovereignty.”
Nine other states, including New Mexico most recently, have enacted their own versions of the ICWA, which has been described as the gold standard of child welfare policy.
Murdered and missing
Another bill sponsored by Backus would improve gaps in state agencies for tracking and reporting missing and murdered Native Americans.
The bill, AB125, would require law enforcement agencies to accept reports on missing people from tribes and colonies in the state, regardless of jurisdiction, and enter the information into the National Crime Information Center and National Missing and Unidentified Persons databases.
The measure would also require a tribal liaison for the Department of Public Safety to maintain ongoing communication about missing or murdered Indigenous persons with tribes and law enforcement agencies.
When it comes to law enforcement’s role in missing women who are Indigenous, tribal officials are in a bind. Tribal officials generally are not allowed to bring charges against those who are not Native American but commit crimes on tribal lands. The National Crime Information Center found that Indigenous women experience 10 times more violence than the national average.
Interior Secretary Debra Haaland, the first Indigenous person to lead the agency, recently created a Missing & Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services in response to the growing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.
During the pandemic state agencies faced difficulties coordinating with tribal governments and providing services to often remote indigenous communities, including improving food security.
Part of the difficulty is finding tribal members who have both experience working with tribes and the qualifications for employment with state agencies.
In response, the Committee on Natural Resources recommended a bill, SB94, that would adjust state agency employment standards to help tribal members obtain state employment. The measure would require each state agency that communicates with tribes on a regular basis to employ a tribal liaison who reports directly to the head of the state agency.
The bill has some legal precedent. State statute already requires certain agencies to designate a tribal liaison.
Revisions to tuition waiver program
In late spring 2021, Nevada Legislature passed a law prohibiting the Nevada System of Higher Education from charging tuition to any Native American student who belongs to a federally recognized tribe in Nevada or a descendant of an enrolled member. Universities and Native American students say the program has already created “life-changing” opportunities for Indigenous youth.
But several school administrators say the bill should be revised to include students shut out by the original bill.
Daphne Emm Hooper, the director of Indigenous Relations for the University of Nevada, Reno said the law was “a positive step” but challenges remain.
“We’re going to have to address the Legislature this session for an amendment regarding the residency requirement,” Emm Hooper said.
Due to the wording of the law, some students have been ineligible for the waiver because of their state residency. For example, students who are members of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California who attend a Nevada high school but technically reside in Woodford, California—just across the Nevada-California border— are not eligible for the tuition waiver.
“They are deemed ineligible because of the way the legislation is written,” Emm Hooper said. “That is a challenge we have to deal with.”