VAWA 2013: House Must Reauthorize to Protect Native Women


“To doctors without clues, for say-nothing neighbors, do-nothing attorneys, and quiet parents with no memories, thank you…we couldn’t fail these women without your help.” - Excerpt from “To the Indigenous Woman” by the 1491s.

There are times when it’s acceptable, even advisable, to have long-winded philosophical debates about legislative proposals.

Now is not one of those times.

After having passed the Senate with a vote of 78-22, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is moving on to the House. Its passage has huge ramifications for undocumented immigrants, LGBT couples, and most controversially, Native women in Indian country.

Until now, these populations have been excluded from the purview of this act, which has provided medical and crisis services to survivors of rape and domestic violence; spurred the creation of domestic violence task forces in rural communities; helped victims obtain protective orders against perpetrators; trained local law enforcement to investigate cases of domestic abuse; and developed transitional housing programs.

If passed, the 2013 reauthorization of the VAWA would allow non-Indian defendants in domestic abuse cases to be tried in tribal courts. As it stands, non-Indian men living on reservations are outside the jurisdiction of tribal government; thus, Native victims must rely on the feds to prosecute their cases. Unfortunately, U.S. Attorneys decline to prosecute 52% of violent crimes that occur on reservation lands; a staggering 67% of cases declined involve sexual abuse.

Ruth Hopkins, a Lakota and Dakota tribal judge with her own harrowing tale of sexual violence explains, "Today, federal and state law enforcement has jurisdiction over domestic violence committed on the reservation, but they often lack the means or incentive to pursue such cases, and state's attorneys repeatedly decline to take legal action. This means that under our current system, non-Native men who prey upon Native women are pretty much immune from prosecution."

Although provisions relating to Native women have been the Act’s most controversial, the proposed changes are intensely specific, applying only to instances of domestic or dating violence in which 1). the victim is a Native, 2). the conduct occurs on tribal lands, and 3). the defendant either lives or works on the reservation, i.e., where the defendant has significant ties to the community. 

Statistics from Native communities provide important cultural context for the act and explain the sense of urgency felt by women’s advocacy groups and Native activists:

-34% of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes.

-39% of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be subjected to violence by an intimate partner.

-Native women are at least twice as likely to be assaulted and/or stalked than other American women.

-Over 60% of Native women will be physically assaulted in their lifetime.

-On many reservations, the murder rate for Native women is more than ten times the national average.

-59% of American Indian women in 2010 were married to non-Native men.

-77% of the residents on Indian lands are non-Indian.

-An estimated 88% of sexual abuse crimes are committed by non-Indians “over which tribal governments lack any criminal jurisdiction under U.S. law.”

After learning of these figures, it is hard to imagine how anyone could vote against additional measures to protect Native women. In 2000 and 2005, the 1994 Act was reauthorized in landslide votes (the House vote in 2005 was 415 to 4, in spite of a Republican majority). Since then, however, new Republicans have put the kibosh on subsequent attempts (2012; 2013) to reauthorize the act. As a result, 18 years after its original passage, the law has expired. 

Now, here we are again, at what could be another Congressional impasse. Though the Senate reauthorized the bill last week, a number of House members still openly oppose the bill. Now, the fate of vulnerable Native women (as well as LGBT folks and undocumented women) lies in the hands of a few dozen conservative white men. Hmm. Rich white men controlling women’s bodies? Sounds ludicrously familiar, doesn’t it?

As the the Atlantic explains, “The objections can be grouped in two broadly ideological areas – that the law is an unnecessary overreach by the federal government, and that it represents a ‘feminist’ attack on family values.”

In general, critics have cloaked their “concerns” with legalese. Still, like too many Tea Party views, these so-called legal arguments live off of the planet I affectionately refer to as “Reality.”

This is not a situation of Native people getting special treatment. In fact, the U.S. has been prosecuting Native peoples and documented/undocumented immigrants for crimes committed within the U.S. for centuries.

These provisions “do not in any way alter or remove the current criminal jurisdiction of the United States or of any state. Rather, [they restore] concurrent tribal criminal jurisdiction over a very narrow set of crimes that statistics demonstrate are an egregious problem on Indian reservations.” Even in tribal courts, non-Native defendants would be afforded their Constitutional rights, and those convicted would be given an opportunity to appeal their cases in the U.S. federal court system.

It is beyond startling that all 22 opponents to the Senate bill passed on February 12 were middle-aged, white, Republican men. However, to be fair, not all Republicans oppose the VAWA; in fact, some publicly have voiced support, including Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.):

“Let’s just talk politics here. This will have passed the Senate. The president’s for it. And we’re holding up a domestic violence bill that should be routine because you don’t want to help Native  women who are the most vulnerable over a philosophical point?”

Cole, whose home state of Oklahoma is home to one of the largest Native populations in the country, believes many members of his party “fear Indians are going to take out 500 years of mistreatment on us through this.”

“It’s that kind of fear, veiled in constitutional theories,” he explained.

Let’s just hope that “fear” doesn’t prevent tens of thousands of American Indian women from receiving justice.

Please encourage your representative to support Native women.