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Indy Q&A: Cortez Masto views report on missing, murdered Indigenous people as 'blueprint'

Not Invisible Act Commission strives to cross jurisdictional boundaries to improve justice for victims and prosecution for perpetrators of crimes.
Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
CongressGovernmentTribal Nations

In 2020, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) introduced the Not Invisible Act. Signed into law by then-President Donald Trump, the bill created a commission populated by tribal leaders, law enforcement and federal employees to investigate the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people (MMIP).

The crisis predominantly affects Native women and has claimed over 5,700 women in 2016 alone, while homicide remains the third-leading cause of death for Native women younger than 19. And officials believe these numbers to likely be higher given a lack of data — in Nevada and around the country.

The Not Invisible Act Commission, which included former Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe leader Janet Davis, began holding hearings in February and, on Nov. 1, released a 212-page report with urgent recommendations for Congress and the executive branch to address the violence, abuse and neglect that commissioners said Indian Country has suffered.

The report identifies several themes that impede safety and justice. Years of traumatic experiences make distrust of law enforcement widespread among Native Americans, and a web of jurisdictional authorities creates confusion around who can investigate and prosecute these crimes, particularly when perpetrated by non-Natives. And federal agencies and the tribes themselves are persistently underfunded.

“It took tremendous courage and resiliency for individuals to speak about their painful experiences to a group of strangers,” authors wrote in the report. “They hoped — sometimes very faintly because their hopes had been dashed so many times — that their stories might help bring about positive change.”

The report recommends increasing funding, restoring tribal sovereignty so that tribes can successfully enforce their law and pursue justice, and improving communication and data sharing between the tribal, local, state and federal agencies that work on MMIP issues.

The jurisdictional issue is a persistent challenge, particularly after a pair of Supreme Court decisions denied tribes the right to prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes, even if on tribal land.

Cortez Masto, who worked on tribal justice jurisdiction as Nevada’s attorney general, sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. In addition to the Not Invisible Act, she co-sponsored Savanna’s Act, aimed at improving communication and data collection on the MMIP epidemic at the Department of Justice, which passed in 2020. 

During a Nov. 7 interview, she said she had not yet received feedback from Nevada tribes or begun conversations with her Indian Affairs colleagues on next steps, but was impressed with the report and pledged to work toward implementing its recommendations.

The conversation below is edited for length and clarity.

The Nevada Independent: You sponsored the Not Invisible Act, which was signed in 2020, that created this commission. What feedback did you receive from tribal nations in Nevada about the creation of the commission?

The reason why I did it is because I was talking to not just many of our tribes in Nevada, but, on Senate Indian Affairs, learned that this is an issue nationwide. And if you just look at the statistics — and it's something I knew when I was attorney general, because I work with the tribes on some of these issues, particularly dealing with human trafficking and sexual violence and assault — we recognized that there was a lack of data. The Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] was reporting murders in Native American and Indian Country was the third-leading cause of death of Native women and girls, and over 50 percent of them experienced sexual violence or assault. 

But there was no data. There was no follow-up. There was no enforcement. And it was what I was hearing in our communities, and then as I sat on Senate Indian Affairs working with my colleagues, both Lisa [Murkowski] (R-AL) and at the time, Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), learning in their communities, they're hearing the same thing. 

I'm glad you brought up your time as attorney general. Part of the problem that the report identified is the tangled web of jurisdictions in tribal lands. It can be hard to bring people to justice because of that. Was that something that you ran into when you were attorney general? And does that inform your perspective on the issue? 

Oh, absolutely. The attorneys general — people don't realize this — actually have an Indian [law book]. And we actually drafted it. I had, in my office at the time, an attorney who took a chapter of it, and we had other AG’s offices that took chapters of it. And we wrote a desk book on the legal aspects for Indian Country. And so that informed me. 

But also just being on the ground, working with local law enforcement as well as our federal law enforcement. There are challenges and gaps, and there [are] cross-jurisdictional challenges as well. That's why in Nevada, many of our local law enforcement entered into memorandums of understanding (MOUs) of how they were going to enforce this, working with the tribal law enforcement, because you have tribal code, which is different than our legal system in our state and local jurisdictions. 

But it happens all across the country, [these] cross-jurisdictional challenges. That’s why I was not surprised to see the report coming out with a recommendation on this, because I saw it in my own state. 

One of the other themes that came up was mistrust of law enforcement hampering the ability to get justice for any of these crimes against Indigenous women. Is that something that you hear often from tribal members in Nevada, either as attorney general or now, and do any of the report's recommendations on that front seem particularly promising to you? 

Yes, I can tell you, not just in Nevada, but as I sit on Senate Indian Affairs, I hear the challenges for a lack of enforcement. And sometimes it comes down to, at our federal authorities who have that enforcement jurisdiction, are understaffed. And the tribal communities, not all of them have law enforcement. They don't have enough resources. 

And it is going to require us to pay attention to what federal resources are available for our tribal communities, including not just through our U.S. Attorney's Office, but through the Bureau of Indian Affairs as well. 

Another one of the major roadblocks the report identified was a few Supreme Court decisions where tribes lost the authority to try non-Indians, which was problematic given that so many of these crimes against Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men. The report recommends that Congress pass a law overturning some of those decisions. Is that something you or the Indian Affairs Committee plans to look at?

Well, that's exactly the cross-jurisdictional issue. And each state is different. Some states have more authority over that than other states. And that is the challenge. And that's why I say when Nevada tried to address it by entering into a memorandum of understanding between our local [law enforcement] and our state and our federal, so that they could coordinate around that jurisdiction.

For our tribal communities, that's part of their challenge. It’s not just our system of justice in our states and at our federal level — tribal courts exist and tribal law exists and tribal judges exist. And so you’ve got to manage all three of those and figure out how they're all working together. We addressed some of that in the [Violence Against Women Act] that we passed — the tribal jurisdiction issue for some crimes, recognizing the challenges with the cross-jurisdictional [issues]. So I think we'll continue to try to do just that, and try to take away the complexity of it, and making sure we're focusing on the enforcement at all levels. 

What was your overall impression of not just the report, but also the work that Interior Secretary [Deb] Haaland and the commission did over the last year?

It wasn't easy. If you look at the hearings that they had, the individuals that they talked to, they really focused on all of the stakeholders and all of the individuals that are impacted on these issues. And as you can see from the body of work that they put together in this report, it is incredible work that they've done, and informative. 

I'm hopeful that my colleagues will continue to look at this report and implement these recommendations. I am one of these believers that when a report comes, it just doesn't go on a shelf somewhere and collect dust. 

That is now the next step, the blueprint for things that we need to get done. And I will tell you, for my time in office, this is going to be a blueprint for me that we're going to pull from to try to get some things done. 


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