Senate passes bill with funds to address missing and murdered indigenous women

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks to Abigail Echo-Hawk and Annita Lucchesi, two researchers who tried to quantify the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, in 2018. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

The U.S. Senate last week agreed to spend $6.5 million to tackle the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women.

It’s a small line-item within a massive spending package, but it’s one Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is proud to have included.

“That opens up funding to go … to investigate cold cases and just really put some energy behind this issue,” Murkowski said.

Spotty data makes it hard for researchers to quantify the killings and disappearances of Native women. The spending bill directs the Bureau of Indian Affairs to coordinate with law enforcement agencies and develop guidelines for data collection.

Michelle Demmert is chief justice for the Supreme Court of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. She said she’s grateful for the funds Murkowski is pursuing, and also for the congressional recognition of how devastating the problem is for many rural Alaska communities.

“She’s listening to us. She understands that these issues are close to home and they impact our lives on a daily basis,” Demmert said. “You know, there’s one less sister. There’s one less auntie.”

Demmert spoke Monday from her hometown of Klawock, with a population of roughly 800, where she’s participating in a summit about violence against women.

“Just in the last five years, we’ve had three women in Klawock who’ve either died at the hands of someone violently or have had unexplained, suspicious deaths,” Demmert said. “Only one of those cases has been actually prosecuted.”

The funding is part of a $332 billion Senate spending package. It passed the Senate overwhelmingly but must be reconciled with the House of Representatives version and pass both chambers again by Nov. 21 to avoid a government shutdown.

Murkowski chairs the appropriations subcommittee that writes the budget for the BIA, the Interior Department and other environmental resource agencies. Among the Alaska priorities in the bill is $29 million in Environmental Protection Agency grants for Alaska village water systems. President Donald Trump’s administration proposed slashing the village program to $3 million. Instead, Murkowski boosted the program with an extra $4.6 million over last year’s level.

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