|December 20, 2012
Empowering Native Women
Native American provision holds up passage of Violence Against Women Act
By Lailani Upham
(L to R) Briana Lamb, Amy Stiffarm, Lawna Burland, Stella Morigeau, Erica Shelby, Curtis Yazzie, and Chelsea Morales endured a cold day to bring awareness to the issue of violence against Native American women. (Lailani Upham photo)
PABLO — Since the Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994, it has empowered victims of domestic violence to step forward and seek help.
Currently the VAWA is at risk of becoming nonexistent if Congress does not renew it.
According to an article in Huffington Post last week, VAWA, which has been reauthorized consistently for 18 years with little fanfare, was, for the first time, left to expire in Sept. 2011.
The stalling point has been new protections for three at risk groups: undocumented immigrants, members of the LGBT community and Native Americans.
The additions are supported by Democrats, and opposed by House Republicans, who say the additions are politically driven.
In April the Senate passed a bipartisan bill with the additional protections.
In May, House Republicans passed their own bill that omitted those three provisions.
Since then, the issue has gone nowhere.
As of late, the House Republicans leaders are attempting to block the bill because of the tribal provision that gives tribal courts limited jurisdiction to oversee domestic violence offenses committed against native American women by non-Native American men on tribal lands.
Particularly, GOP Congressional House leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA) has opposed the provision in the VAWA to protect Native American women on tribal lands, going as far as calling it “unconstitutional.” What is behind this refusal remains unclear.
However, most members do support the full version of the additions to VAWA. Incoming House member Dan Kildee (D-MI) stated, “The first thing they need to do, these so-called defenders of the Constitution, is they should read it. In the Constitution is the specific reference to the sovereign status of tribes and their recognition by this government.”
The U.S. Department of Justice reported around 88 percent of domestic assaults on Indian land are committed by non-Indians. The only authority with jurisdiction to prosecute these cases is the U.S. Department of Justice, and they use the Major Crimes Act as their standard for taking a case. The report goes on to say, as such, 46 percent of reported assault cases and 67 percent of sexual abuse cases go unprosecuted.
The VAWA Native provision will allow tribes to take on the cases that fall below the federal radar. Tribes would then be granted authority to arrest offenders and prosecute the crimes through tribal courts, adding to their current jurisdiction over tribal members and other Native Americans.
Members of the Save the Wiyabi Project and Seventh Generation hold up signs to the Pablo Bridge overpass on Highway 93. The signs were statements to support the new provisions in VAWA, one which supports jurisdiction for tribal courts to prosecute non-Native offenders for Native women in domestic violence cases. (Lailani Upham photo)
On Wednesday, December 5, local members of the Save Wiyabi Project, a Native Youth Leadership Alliance and members of the Seventh Generation joined hands in cosponsoring a Flathead Reservation VAWA rally on the Pablo Bridge to make a stand for Native women victims.
Over 35 people stopped by to show their support.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and author of the Senate VAWA Bill, explained earlier this month on the Senate floor that currently federal and state law enforcement have jurisdiction over domestic violence on tribal lands, but in any cases, they are hours away and lack the resources to respond those cases. He state, meanwhile tribal courts are on site and familiar with tribal laws, but lack the jurisdiction to address domestic violence on tribal lands and when it is carried out by a non-Native individual.
Leahy went on to state, this means non-Native American men who abuse Native American women on tribal lands are essentially “immune from the law, and they know it.”
Amy Stiffarm, a member of the native Youth Leadership Alliance, stated the reason for the groups to come together and make a literal stand on a freezing winter day on the Pablo overpass. “We want to promote independence and help reverse historical trauma for Indian women. Recently propaganda and media trying to hyper sexualize Indian women has spun out of control. Empowering Native women and restoring the traditional balance of power could have a great effect on current social issues in Indian country. Creating awareness about these issues, supporting victims of violence, and protecting our women is a great place to start.”
Lauren Chief Elk, cofounder of Save Wiyabi Project said, “The realities of reservation violence are horrifying.”
Stiffarm stated, “This event was organized to send a message to leaders in Congress to demand that the Violence Against Women Act either be passed with the tribal criminal jurisdiction provisions or not passed at all. Organizers also hoped to raise awareness to the local community about these issues and also show support for victims of crimes associated with violence against women.”
Stiffarm’s sign, which read “Rez Out VAWA,” was to contribute to what she had learned from Salish Kootenai College that emphasized the sacredness of women and how they are the center of the family, she said.
“There is a 1 in 3 chance that I will be a victim of domestic violence in my lifetime. That’s a heavy burden to carry and it’s causing Native women to feel scared, not sacred. The statistics are against us but that doesn’t mean our lawmakers need to be too. They should be fighting harder to protect us. I want congress to pass a VAWA that will keep Native women living on the reservation safe.”