Bridging the information gap between tribes and the rest of California

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California is home to about 100 Native American reservations, located from rural areas to highly populated cities like Sacramento and San Diego. To a lay person, there’s often very little to visually distinguish these territories from the rest of California.

But practically and legally, these reservations often operate like islands or even totally separate countries. At their borders, critical public safety information that freely flows throughout the rest of California frequently stops, creating potential problems for both indigenous peoples and other state residents.

Because tribal governments aren’t always perceived as “public agencies” under state law, reservations often do not have access to a litany of essential state government databases tracking things like communicable diseases, missing persons or outstanding warrants.

The result is that wanted criminals can escape justice, vulnerable people can slip through the cracks and viruses can spread without proper public health oversight.

“It impacts all the citizens, not just us,” said Chief Judge Abby Abinanti of the Yurok Tribe, whose reservation is north of Eureka, Calif. “We need to have access (to government information),” she said. “People are getting hurt.”

Two bills pending in the legislature seek to address this thorny issue, which is made all the more complicated by overlapping laws at the state and federal levels as well as local practices that often differ from county to county.

Assembly Bill 44, by Assemblyman James Ramos, D-Highland, would grant any federally recognized Indian tribe meeting certain qualifications access to the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System or CLETS, a statewide computer network of criminal histories, driver records and other public safety information. It’s hoped that tribal access to CLETS could address the growing problem of murdered and missing indigenous people in California.

“Once were able to have that information moving forward, we’re going to be able to be more proactive on who is coming onto federal reservations,” said Ramos, who recently led a candlelight vigil on the steps of the state capitol for murdered and missing indigenous people. “That would be a big deterrent and curb to MMIW [murdered and missing indigenous women],” he said.

Another bill, AB 392, by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, D- Baldwin Park, would require the California Department of Public Health to enter into a data sharing agreement with the California Tribal Epidemiology Center, a repository of tribal health data, which in turn would give tribes access to the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange (CalREDIE) as well as the California Immunization Registry (CAIR).

The result is that wanted criminals can escape justice, vulnerable people can slip through the cracks and viruses can spread without proper public health oversight.

The idea is that AB 392 would provide California tribes with real-time data about public health threats, access one could argue they should have already, given that communicable diseases have historically devastated tribal communities. As a modern example, Native American people were 3.3 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than non-Hispanic whites.

“The state should be allowing us to have access to this data,” said Buck Ellingson, health policy analyst for the California Rural Indian Health Board, the sponsor of AB 392. “This is a public safety issue, 100 percent,” he said.

Rubio’s office is treating AB 392 as a “two-year bill,” as it works out some concerns in the legislature about private information from CalREDIE being shared with the tribes. Ramos’ office, however, is moving forward this year with AB 44; it has already passed out of the Assembly Committee on Public Safety on a 8-0 vote and got off suspense in Assembly Committee on Appropriations on May 18. It now awaits action the Assembly Floor.

Ramos, who describes himself in his official Assembly biography as “a lifelong resident of the San Manuel Indian Reservation in San Bernardino County,” has authored several bills to address California tribes’ disconnect with other government services and information.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Ramos’ AB 923, which encourages California government entities to consult on “a government-to-government basis” with tribes, to allow them to have input into policies that have tribal implications.

This year, Ramos has also authored AB 273, which seeks to ensure tribal representatives are notified when a foster child from a reservation goes missing, and AB 630, which would remove some restrictions on the California Department of Transportation’s ability to directly contract directly with tribal governments on transportation projects.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done” to ensure that tribal governments achieve equality with other government entities in California, said Ramos, who called leading a “cultural change” around the treatment of tribes one of his top legislative priorities. “It’s tough,” he said. “But we’re gaining allies along the way.

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