|March 7, 2013
Violence Against Women Act passes with key tribal protections
By Lailani Upham
Members of the Save the Wiyabi Project and Seventh Generation - (L to R) Briana Lamb, Amy Stiffarm, Lawna Burland, Stella Morigeau, Erica Shelby, Curtis Yazzie, and Chelsea Morales - hold up signs to the Pablo Bridge overpass on Highway 93 last December. 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. The VAWA passed with these provision. (Lailani Upham photo)
WASHINGTON D.C. —
The Violence Against Women Act, a bill that represents a major advance for public safety in Indian Country, is headed to President Obama’s desk for signature to be made law.
A historic vote was made in the House of Representatives and the Senate last month to pass the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization that includes provisions for tribal courts to gain jurisdiction over non-Indian domestic violence perpetrators, according to a recent press release form the National Congress of American Indians.
The VAWA was originally passed in 1994 and has been a legal defense for victims of domestic violence since.
In the past 18 years, it was consistently reauthorized with no problem.
However, in September of 2011, the bill was left to expire and on the verge of becoming nonexistent due to contentions in the House and Senate over additions to the bill to protect three at-risk groups: Native Americans on Indian Reservations, undocumented immigrants, and members of the LGBT community.
The additions were supported by Democrats, and opposed by House Republicans, who said the additions were politically driven.
In April of 2012, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill with the additional protections.
In May, House Republicans passed their own bill that omitted the three provisions.
Since then, the issue sat on the table.
In December, the House Republicans leaders attempted to block the bill because of the tribal provision that handed over limited jurisdiction to tribal courts to oversee domestic violence offenses committed against Native American women by non-Native American men on tribal lands.
NCAI say they are praising the efforts of the House and the Senate to reauthorize VAWA and the bipartisan support of the Senate version of the legislation in both chambers with resounding votes of 286 - 138 in the House and 78-22 vote in the Senate in February.
“It is with a glad heart and soaring spirit that I celebrate the passage of VAWA. Today the drum of justice beats loud in Indian Country in celebration of the reauthorization of VAWA and we stand in unity with all of our partners and leaders who were unrelenting in support of protections for all women, including Native women,” said Juana Majel Dixon, First Vice President of NCAI, and co-chair of NCAI’s Task Force on Violence Against Women.
Majel Dixon, a Traditional Councilwoman Pauma Band of Mission Indians of California added, “500 plus days is too long to not have a bill for all women in America. For an unimaginable length of time those who have terrorized our women in our most sacred places, in our relationships, in our homes, and on our land, have gone unprosecuted. Now that time has come to an end and justice and security will flourish in these specific instances. We celebrate the protections for all women included in VAWA, including those for Immigrant and LGBT women,” added Juana Majel.
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.
Amy Stiffarm, a member of the native Youth Leadership Alliance, stated during the event the group wanted 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.”
Their message and many voices across Indian Country were heard.
Dustin Monroe, Executive Director for Western Native Voice agreed the passage of the bill was historic because of the implications it finally has on Native American victims and the tribal courts system.
“The provision for Native Americans allows for tribal courts to convict a non-Native and closes the loophole that some non-natives have used on reservations. Protecting our Native women and children should always be a main priority for us as a people like our grandfathers who defended this country in the past,” stated Monroe.
“With this authority, comes a serious responsibility and tribal courts will administer justice with the same level of impartiality that any defendant is afforded in state and federal courts,” said Jefferson Keel, the President of NCAI and Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation. “We have strong tribal courts systems that protect public safety. The law respects tribal sovereignty, and also requires that our courts respect the due process rights of all defendants. My hope is that this new law is rarely used. Our goal isn’t to put people in jail. It is to create an effective deterrent so that our people can lead safe lives in our communities and nations.”
“I’m ecstatic to see VAWA was passed,” stated Marlene Heath, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Victim Assistance Advocate.
“I was sitting at my desk reading the news, and an article popped up saying ‘Breaking News.’ I clicked and was happy I was reading ‘Congress finally reauthorizes Violence Against Women Act.’ I was so excited that I had to share it on our Facebook Page (CSKT Victim Assistance Program). Like Obama said ‘It’s an important step towards making sure no one is forced to live in fear.’ I think this goes for all women and victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. But Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to experience domestic violence compared to all races, and one in three Native American women reports having been raped during her lifetime” Heath added.
According to NCAI, the constitutionally sound tribal jurisdiction provisions in VAWA authorize tribal governments to prosecute non-Indian defendants involved in intimate relationships with Native women and who assault these victims on tribal land. Current federal laws do not authorize tribal law enforcement or tribal courts to pursue any form of prosecution or justice against these perpetrators.
“There were at least five things that came together: an enormous grassroots effort from Indian country; the coalition of the National Task Force to End Domestic Violence; statistics so we could finally show the problem; steadfast leadership from the Department of Justice; and incredible support from so many Members of Congress both Republicans and Democrats,” said Terri Henry, Council Member at Eastern Cherokee and Co-Chair of the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Women who spoke of the large collective effort that led to the passage. “We really want to thank everyone for their hard work. Now we are going to use this tool to protect Native women from violence,” Henry added.
“The VAWA is just the beginning for progressive change for Native people. We need to be ‘Idle No More’ and expect more from our tribal governments and federal governments, but must support those who are working for a change,” said Monroe.
“Domestic violence will continue to live in the shadows until people shine a light on it with proactive behavior. Parents, talk to your kids. Teachers, talk to your students. Business owners, talk to your employees. Most importantly, speak up when you suspect someone you know is in danger. Being wrong about that suspicion is a better outcome than being right, but staying silent,” stated Heath.
According the National Violence against Women Survey, 34 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes.
The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2008 that 39 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women would be subjected to violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes. And according to the 2010 U.S. Census 46 percent people living on Reservations were non-Native and 59 percent of American Indian women were married to non-Native men.
NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Pata said the passage of the bill does not mark the end of the fight against domestic violence issues in Indian Country but a presents a step along the way.
“We will remain as dedicated as we have been since we began addressing this issue as an organization. There have been many members of Congress who have stood with tribal nations throughout this effort and they have stayed true to the constitution, to the trust responsibility, and to the truth that tribal nations are the best to address our situations at the local level. Today we advance the protections tribal nations can provide all people, Native and non-Native,” stated Pata.