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Why the Violence Against Women Act Is Crucial for Native American Women

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  • Romi Elnagar
    Why the Violence Against Women Act Is Crucial for Native American Women Republicans until Tuesday, had proposed amendments to strip Native American rights and
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 14, 2013
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      Why the Violence Against Women Act Is Crucial for Native American Women
      Republicans until Tuesday, had proposed amendments to strip Native American rights
      and jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of violence on the
      Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com
      February 13, 2013  |  
      “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground…”-- Cheyenne proverb
      This week’s debate on the Violence Against Women Act marks, what may be a
      very important stage in improving relations between tribal governments,
      state and federal governments and the protection of women.   The law has been up for re-authorization for five years, and has a few sticking
      points, mostly around the protection of Native and immigrant women, and
      gay and lesbian people.  Republicans until Tuesday, had proposed
      amendments to strip Native American rights and jurisdiction over non-
      Native perpetrators of violence on the reservation. In what appears to
      be a change of heart, Tuesday’s passage of SB 47 with tribal
      jurisdiction intact, was a step in recognizing that as Senator Patrick
      Leahy said, in debates, “… a victim  is a victim is a victim."

      is this particularly important?  Presently, 34% of American Indian and
      Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes; 39% will be
      subjected to domestic violence in their lifetimes; 67% of Native women
      victims of rape and sexual assault report their assailants as non-Native
      individuals, and, on some reservations, Native women are murdered at
      more than ten times the national average.  Not good. This set of facts
      is paired with unfortunately high declination rates:  U.S. Attorneys
      declined to prosecute nearly 52% of violent crimes that occur in Indian
      country; and 67% of cases declined were sexual abuse related cases. This
      means, in the end, that Native women have been, in the words of Senator
      Maria Cantwell, “ treated as second class citizens under the law.”
      I asked Lisa Brunner, Executive Director of Sacred Spirits, a national
      tribal organization working on the issues, her thoughts.  “Some of the
      concern stems from a lack of understanding of tribal jurisdiction, in
      some cases, tribes are just implementing criminal codes in place which
      allow this legal process. The answer is to fund the tribal justice
      system. As well, there are safeguards built into the provision which
      ensure that all rights guaranteed under the Constitution are given to
      non-Native defendants in tribal court.”
      The National Congress of American Indians, in their letter to Congress last week explained:
      The special domestic violence jurisdiction is narrowly restricted to apply
      only to instances of domestic or dating violence where: 1) the victim is an Indian, 2) the conduct occurs on tribal lands; and 3) where the
      defendant either lives or works on the reservation, i.e., where the
      defendant has significant ties to the community.
      NCAI also pointed out that “Indian tribes are not a racial class, they are a political body – so the question is not whether non-Indians are subject to Indian court – the question is whether tribal governments, political entities, have the necessary jurisdiction to provide their citizens
      with the public safety protections every government has the inherent
      duty to provide… Indeed, placing more funding in the hands of state or
      federal authorities to administer this process, concerns tribes deeply
      as there has been little, to no action on most of these cases, with 62%
      of the cases being declined for prosecution.”
      The answer, as in
      many conflicts, may be education and effort. In this case, it’s a
      combined effort to support justice in the law, and the infrastructure
      for justice in Native America. The facts are very disturbing. As well,
      it may be time to understand what a justice system looks like that is
      multi- jurisdictional.  Native people are subjected to both tribal and
      non tribal law, and, unfortunately, make up a disproportionate segment
      of North Dakota’s prison population. That’s a different issue, but it
      does seem fair, that non-Native people committing crimes in Indian
      territory should not be sheltered by a lack of jurisdiction, or in some
      cases, interest. We will see how the House of Representatives’ debate
      At some level, psychologically and beyond, this is of
      absolute importance to tribal nations. The ability of a tribal
      government to protect those who are most vulnerable is crucial to the
      dignity of a people. The folly of the Supreme Court’s Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, decision which precluded tribal criminal jurisdiction over non Indians
      on the reservation is apparent. The VAWA brings into the spotlight the
      need to protect tribal citizens, and address protection and prosecution
      of non Natives  who have chosen to live within Indian country. At some
      level, if you live there, just as tribal citizens off reservation, it
      seems fair that jurisdiction should apply. It is also not logistically
      feasible for federal or state governments to maintain the predominant
      criminal jurisdictional authority over Indian country. Non-Indian
      authorities are often situated far from reservations and do not have the manpower to thoroughly investigate and prosecute the high number of
      reservation crimes that fall under their jurisdiction post-Oliphant. And, as evidenced in the case of violence against Native women, follow
      through is non -existent. Native nations have the absolute right and
      need to protect our citizens.
      As Cantwell testified, "The notion
      that this is somehow abrogating individual rights just because the crime takes place on a tribal reservation is incorrect. So I ask my
      colleagues, do you want to continue to have this unbelievable growth and petri dish of crime evolving? Because criminals know, when you have a
      porous border that is where they are going to go."
      Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe) is an internationally acclaimed author, orator and activist. A graduate of Harvard and Antioch Universities with advanced
      degrees in rural economic development, LaDuke has devoted her life to
      protecting the lands and life ways of Native communities.

      NOTE: Also, Winona LaDuke was the US Green Party's nominee for Vice President in 2008.

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