People make field trips to Washington, D.C., all the time, especially in the spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming. Not only is the journey steeped in history, but it’s important to see where our elected representatives do their jobs — or not do them, depending on one’s viewpoint.
Less popular, but perhaps more important, is the occasional practice by congressional committees to escape the insularity of the Beltway and light out for the hinterlands to interact with constituents on the people’s home turf. And when it comes to dealing with troubling social issues such as the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, it undoubtedly would make a much bigger impact for lawmakers to learn about the problem in situ, rather than in some sterile committee hearing room.
So, we support U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse’s formal request to his colleagues in the House of Representatives — specifically, the Judiciary and Natural Resources committees — to leave their Washington and come to our Washington for what is formally called a “field hearing.”
Forget the cherry blossoms, you lawmakers. Cherries are coming in and apples not far behind here in Central Washington, so a trip to Central Washington will afford a different venue and maybe change some congressmen and women’s perspective on making Savanna’s Act a legislative priority this term.
Savanna’s Act would require, among other things, standardized guidelines among law enforcement for responding to missing and murdered indigenous women, mandate that U.S. attorneys consult with tribes on training and assistance for tribal police, and increase tribal access to federal crime databases. Currently sitting in the Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs, Savanna’s Act was blocked by Republican foes during the last congressional session but, this time, is getting a big bipartisan push from legislators, including Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, and Washington’s Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell.
In his recent letter to fellow House members, Newhouse wrote that “I must respectfully stress the importance of hearing directly from communities on the ground who have been harmed by this epidemic.”
Sadly, but accurately, almost no place in America has been touched by the violence against Native American women more than Washington state. The statistics are chilling. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute figures, Washington (71) is second only to New Mexico (78) in the number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls cases. And, according to the National Crime Information Center, Yakima County has the most in the state, with 20; King County is a distant second with 12 cases.
So, indeed, Washington could well serve as ground zero for lawmakers to tackle the issue, head-on. And if Newhouse’s entreaties are heeded, the hearing should take place on Yakama Nation tribal land, at a venue large enough for all stakeholders to attend and long enough to enable everyone to be heard.
There is a certain urgency and persuasive pull in having lawmakers see the faces all family members of missing and murdered women. Rather than having only a representative or two go to Washington, D.C., to testify in what can be an intimidating venue, letting people testify on their own turf will give House committee members an indication as to the scope of the problem.
And a vast scope it is, too. What lawmakers would likely hear are searing tales of loss and uncertainty, how even if a report is filed with law enforcement, often the loved ones of victims are left in the dark about any progress in the investigation. As Washington State Patrol Capt. Monica Alexander reported to the Legislature last week in a 36-page report, “There’s a huge communication gap between the Native American community and law enforcement. … They feel like no one cares and that’s a horrible feeling and it makes us (law enforcement) feel like we aren’t doing our work.”
In a perfect world, it shouldn’t matter where House members hold a meeting on missing and murdered indigenous women; the important thing is that they pass legislation. But as last year’s stalling of Savanna’s Act showed, it’s easy for a bill to get bogged down and left behind amid the swirl of activity and bevy of committee hearings in the halls of the Capitol.
But if the sights and sounds and information put forth at a “field hearing” remains in lawmakers’ minds — and the grassroots organizations that advocate justice for MMIWG is nothing if not passionate and persuasive — it may be more difficult for them to dismiss their concerns amid all the other issues seeking remedy.
It was beyond disappointing that, last year, a handful of legislators — most notably now-retired representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia (then House Judiciary chairman) — were able to run out the clock in the session and leave Savanna’s Act hanging.
Now that Savanna’s Act has been reintroduced, action must to be taken and passage secured. The needed first step: a road trip to the Yakama Nation by House members to learn why the bill necessary.