Violence Against Women Act Adds Protection for Native American Women: But Is It Enough?

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By Britnae Purdy

Activists Holds Rally For Re-Authorization Of The Violence Against Women Act

The newly-reauthorized Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) includes new protections for Native American women who are victims of sexual assault or domestic violence. Despite attempts by House Republicans to pass a watered-down version of VAWA that limited these Native American provisions, as well as eliminating protection for lesbian and gay victims, the bill was passed by the House of Representatives and signed into law by President Obama on March 7th, just in time for International Women’s Day.

VAWA continues $5 million financial support and expands programs that target domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking on tribal territory, and adds programs focused on sex trafficking, developing response programs, and services for youth who are victims of domestic violence or who are exposed to domestic violence in their homes. It also provides funding for research and analysis of statistics for sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska Native Villages and maintains $1 million in funding for a Native American sex offender registry.

The biggest changes in the new VAWA address tribal jurisdiction in abuse cases. Changes are severely needed; according to the National Task Force to End Domestic Violence, 34 percent of Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes, and 39 percent will be victims of domestic violence. The murder rates for Native American women are consistently much higher than the national average. Current legislation does nothing to address the jurisdictional gap that leaves many Native American women absent of a path to bring their attackers to trial. Federal and state law enforcement are required to intervene on such cases, but they are often located far from the reservations and lack the resources to respond properly. 86 percent of Native American women who report sexual violence say that they were attacked by a non-Native man.

Currently, tribal governments have very limited power to punish non-tribal members who commit crimes on reservation land. As Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla), a registered member of the Chickasaw nation and one of only two Native Americans in Congress illustrated, “There are 535 members of Congress, and 534 of them could go on to the Sioux Reservation, commit a crime, and not be subjected to local jurisdiction. If I did it, though, I would be, because I’m an Indian.”

VAWA “authorizes Indian tribes to exercise special domestic violence jurisdiction over certain non-Indian offenders who commit domestic violence offenses against an Indian in Indian country,” only if the non-Indian in question resides in or is employed in Indian country or is a “spouse, intimate partner, or dating partner” of a tribal member or non-tribal member who also lives on or is employed in the Indian territory. New legislation also gives additional funding to tribal court systems, requires the cross-designation of at least ten tribal prosecutors as federal prosecutors, requires the Attorney General to consult annually with tribal governments on programs and report those findings to Congress with recommendations for improvement, and expands the duties of the Secretary of the Interior to include monitoring conditions on Indian territory. It also solidifies the right of tribal courts to grant protection orders to Native American women.

Though an important and positive step towards change, VAWA is unlikely to be a magic solution for the epidemic rates of rape, assault, and domestic violence on tribal land.

The funding from VAWA may not be enough to drastically enhance much-needed victim services. According to the Bureau for Indian Affairs (BIA), “Native American assistance programs currently resemble the mainstream victim assistance programs of the 1970’s: little money, few staff, no resources, and a huge number of victims.”

The BIA warns that underreporting of crime will also likely remain an obstacle in reducing violence against women. “The issue of crime on Indian reservations also requires us to look at the victims of those crimes, as crime is not committed inside a vacuum. Crime rates remind us that there is generally a loss involved: loss to the victim, loss to the community, and a loss to the general wellness of the tribe. If victims do not receive a response from law enforcement or the justice system, it undermines the entire population. When tribal members see a rape victim report the crime, then see that nothing is done, it sends the message to criminals to commit more crime; the other message is, ‘Why report?’”

Tribal courts are still only authorized to prosecute offenders of such crimes for up to three years, and, while targeting intimate partner violence, the law would not apply to stranger rape, known as “hunting” on some reservations.

“Non-natives come here hunting,” says Lisa Brunner, a Native American victim advocate who, along with both of her teenage daughters, has experienced rape and sexual abuse. “They know they can come onto our land and rape us with impunity because they know we can’t touch them. The U.S. government has created that atmosphere.” Brunner, whose group, The Sacred Spirits First Nations Coalition, provides services including teen outreach programs, says that rates of rape are so high in her community that girls discuss rape in terms of what to do “when I am raped,” not “if I am raped.”

Grassroots movements across North America are stepping up to help fill the judicial gap. Operation Thunderbird has created an online, interactive tracking map that allows the public to anonymously add information about missing Native American women or reports of violent crime, so that “no one woman’s story gets left behind.” The organization was started after concerns that the Thunder Bay Police Department was failing to properly investigate assaults against aboriginal women in the community.

The Moose Hide Campaign, also formed in Canada, is a male-led aboriginal movement that rejects the cycle of domestic violence and encourages men to take an active stand against such behavior, stating that “this cycle came from the residential schools, racism against our peoples, and colonization. It was never in our culture to do violence against women in our families and communities; it was always our responsibility to protect them…Simply being a non-abuser is not enough. We need to speak up and take action, and we need to support each other as aboriginal men.”

The passing of the Violence Against Women Act with these new provisions represents a historic step in acknowledging the systemic violence and discrimination that has been allowed to build against Native American women. However, it should not be a stopping point in the fight for equality: further reforms are needed to enhance the tribal judicial systems, break the cycle of violence and silence, provide for victim services, and protect Native women from rape and assault at the hands of both Native and non-Native men.

(Photo Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)