Murkowski Questions Interior Secretary on Priorities to Benefit Rural Alaska

Highlights Lack of Tribal Law Enforcement, VAWA, and Epidemic of MMIW

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) chaired an Interior Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to examine the Fiscal Year 2020 budget request for the Department of the Interior (DOI). During the hearing, Senator Murkowski questioned Interior Secretary David Bernhardt about areas that the administration and Congress can make progress in addressing the lack of reporting lack of reporting and substantive data surrounding the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

Murkowski asked Secretary Bernhardt how the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is working with the Department of Justice (DOJ) in order to take a whole-government approach to obtain better data and reporting, including providing law enforcement for tribes.

“We’ve been working on some initiatives here, as you know, related to missing and murdered indigenous women. These issues are very discouraging given the statistics we face in our tribal communities, on our reservations, in Alaska’s remote villages. One of the challenges that we face is just lack of data, the data collection and reporting in the tribal communities,” said Senator Murkowski. “We have had some truly troubling and disturbing incidents in Alaska recently in some of our small villages where law enforcement is lacking facilities to house those who need to be temporarily restrained or incarcerated. We’ve seen three people perish in the past couple months so there’s a big focus and spotlight in my state right now on this bigger picture, which is a really troubling picture. Can you just give me some update as to where your priorities and focus are?”

Senator Murkowski Interior Appropriations

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Secretary Bernhardt shared that the Interior and Justice Departments have been coordinating on this horrific situation, noting that there will be a significant effort to address the issue from the administration rolled out in the upcoming months. Bernhardt also explained that he sees an opportunity to combine the economic resources and real life knowledge of the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to help improve investigation processes.

Senator Murkowski stressed to Secretary Bernhardt her desire to work with the administration to ensure key programs are properly funded in order for the federal government to meet its trust responsibilities, including Tribal Court funding.

“I do appreciate that you have kept the Tribal Court funding in this year’s budget. A couple years ago we were able to include the PL 280 states like Alaska in that. That has been important for us in terms of how we’re building capacity in the state and in our Tribal communities. We’ve also provided additional money in recently passed omnibus bills for VAWA, $2 million for VAWA," Senator Murkowski said. "So I’d ask you for an update on how DOI has been distributing those dollars as they relate to VAWA, but also if you feel the direction that we’ve taken with increased resourcing to Tribal court funding is helping us out in these areas, like Alaska, that had previously not had this kind of support.”

Secretary Bernhardt told Senator Murkowski, “Absolutely it’s helping. Look, the implementation of a better understanding of the rule of law is very important and it’s absolutely helping.”

Senator Murkowski also pressed Secretary Bernhardt about the administration’s proposal to eliminate the BIA’s Small and Needy Tribes program, noting that sixty-two small tribes qualify for this program, fifty of which are Alaskan communities. Senator Murkowski committed to working to provide funding for this program where direct support is provided to ensure all tribes have a base level of support to run tribal governments. Alaska receives the largest share of this funding.

Senator Murkowski also asked Secretary Bernhardt about how the budget request fulfills a commitment to science and addressing natural hazards, including proper remediation of cleanup of legacy wells. Murkowski asked about the administration’s proposed decreases to human services, natural resources, real estate, and construction programs.

Related Issues: Alaska Natives & Rural Alaska