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Sen. Walsh addresses domestic violence in tribal communities

By Lailani Upham

Walsh listened intently to stories and concerns. Cinda Burd Meineke, Blackfeet member and Sen. John Walsh field representative, stated at the close of the discussion that in the short time of working for Walsh, she sees a real passion and drive than any other politician for Indian country. (Lailani Upham photo) Walsh listened intently to stories and concerns. Cinda Burd Meineke, Blackfeet member and Sen. John Walsh field representative, stated at the close of the discussion that in the short time of working for Walsh, she sees a real passion and drive than any other politician for Indian country. (Lailani Upham photo)

BROWNING — Last Saturday, Senator John Walsh met with Blackfeet and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal council members, community program directors, law enforcement, child safety advocates, Violence Against Women Act advocates, and law enforcement officials in a round table discussion to talk about ways he can continue to advocate for tribal women and children in domestic violence situations at the Blackfeet tribal council chambers.

CSKT tribal council representatives Carole Lankford and Leonard Two Teeth; along with newly elected Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes, and newly BTBC representative Scott Kipp were present.

There were over 30 people at the meeting that was happening the same time of the North American Indian Days celebration where Sen. Walsh met and danced with local veterans at the powwow earlier.

Walsh underlined his commitment to the Violence Against Women Act. He discussed his next steps to prevent domestic abuse on reservations one in three Native American women have been raped over her lifetime.

Congress recently passed the VAWA 2013, which is a new law that includes significant provisions addressing tribal jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators of domestic violence. These tribal provisions were proposed by the Justice Department in 2011.

Under this new law that will take effect on March, 7, 2015, tribes will be able to exercise their sovereign power to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence both Indian and non-Indians who assault Indian spouses or dating partners or violate a protection order in Indian country.

Blackfeet Law Enforcement Chief of Police, Josh Black Weasel stated that on the reservation they have the highest stats of domestic violence cases, yet a fraction of the staff needed to handle the situations. In order for law enforcement to be more effective Black Weasel said more funding from the state is needed.

CSKT Tribal Council Representative Carole Lankford stated the tribes worked diligently to aid in the reauthorization of VAWA through testimonies, calls, and letters of support and services of a tribal lobbyist who tracked legislation during the drafting process.

Since its original enactment, VAWA was important in many ways. It focused attention on the needs of underserved communities and supported tribal governments in building their capacity to protect American Indian and Alaska Native women, Lankford stated.

A handful of participants thanked Sen. Walsh for taking time to support tribal communities in solutions to target the decrease of incidents of domestic violence.

Toni Plummer-Alvernaz, executive director of Montana Native Women Coalition said building a safety net from the beginning to the end is important because women are usually afraid to come forward due to not feeling they will get the protection and help they so desperately need. Front line advocates are highly recommended she said.

“We face myths that there is a constant flow of money coming in (to tribal community programs),” Nate St. Pierre, Stone Child College President told Walsh.

St. Pierre added that regardless of the funding he sees some hope in grassroots organizations such as the MNWC that is helping not only reservation but urban areas as well – a location where it sometimes is forgotten.

He added that racism also plays a role in re-victimizing. He said folks have seen generations of childhood trauma and that outlets of healing is needed. “We need to do more talking like this and working together,” St. Pierre told Walsh and the group.

Plummer-Alvernaz added that programs and victims should not have to worry that funding may or may not continue due to grant limits. “It should be permanent funding like programs such as tribal social services,” she stated.

Sen. John Walsh addressed the round table discussion participants, from Montana’s tribal communities, that he was bothered that Washington D.C. and Congress do not look at the effects budget cuts leave on people in the communities. He said he want to do away with straight across cuts. (Lailani Upham photo) Sen. John Walsh addressed the round table discussion participants, from Montana’s tribal communities, that he was bothered that Washington D.C. and Congress do not look at the effects budget cuts leave on people in the communities. He said he want to do away with straight across cuts. (Lailani Upham photo)

Several attendees agreed that funding was essential to address the significant and devastating problem on Montana reservations.

Poverty was another topic that many agreed was a backer to the problem at hand.

“Our experience is that domestic violence is often connected to economic conditions to substance abuse,” stated Lankford.

“Rape is an act of power and control often perpetrated by men with little to lose who are desperate to show they are in control of something. When you look around at Montana’s tribal communities many of them have a high unemployment and high poverty rate.”

Black Weasel shared when the Blackfeet tribe shut down a few months ago and paychecks were held for nearly a month the rate for domestic cases rose tremendously.

He said there needed to be more opportunities and an improved life for families to tackle the trauma that is occurring on a daily basis on reservations.

“Access to education, empowerment, good jobs, stable childcare, and the availability of mental health programs are essential to breaking the cycle of domestic violence,” Lankford said.

She added that the tribal community on the Flathead reservation has a poverty rate of over 90 percent. “While the CSKT often appears successful, we know that domestic violence and high tribal unemployment and poverty are directly linked. Many abused women have no choice due to limited education, no jobs and no safety net due to federal program budget reductions.”

Lankford followed with a recommendation that increased funding for victim support services happen. “Support services are essential for empowering women to leave their abusers.”

She also mentioned a national media campaign be conducted that targets reservation areas reminding offenders that domestic violence against tribal women and children will not be tolerated.

Tribal colleges also need to have safety standards in place for stalking and sexual assault, Lankford added.

Lankford concluded with the recommendation that Congress assist tribes in implementing new Indian sections of the VAWA bill to include enforcement against non-tribal members who meet the Act’s criteria. “Many studies indicate the lack of enforcement against non-tribal members living on Indian reservations and abusing their girlfriends and/or wives played an important role in the overall statistics showing the high percentage of abuse toward native women. This will require that many tribes beef up their prosecution offices to including the provision of law trained defense counsel.

She added that future DOJ and BIA budgets must ensure tribes have the resources to implement these acts professionally and impartially.

The meeting came a day after Walsh introduced the Protecting Children from Interstate Child Endangerment Act, legislation that corrects inconsistencies across state child abuse laws. The bill creates uniform federal law for prosecutors to federally prosecute child abusers even across state lines.

Walsh also secured language in the National Defense Authorization Act that assesses the effectiveness of military sexual assault prevention programs.

“I enjoyed meeting with Blackfeet leaders to hear their thoughts about this troubling issue,” Walsh said. “Far too many of Montana’s women and children are affected by domestic violence and sexual assault, and we need to work together to come up with solutions.”

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