Native Indian women get U.S. Federal legal power to report violence

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Native American women VAWA signing
VAWA Presidential Signing Ceremony
National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Sentinel photos from the signing of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Presidential signing ceremony held on March 7, 2013 at the Department of Interior. Image: NCAI

(WNN) Washington, D.C., UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: In a triumph for the movement to protect women, three Native American Indian tribes have been chosen to be the first in the U.S. to be given legal jurisdiction to prosecute domestic violence crimes committed by non-Indians on reservation land. The U.S. native nations of the Tulalip of Washington State, the Umatilla of the State of Oregon and the Pascua Yaqui of the State of Arizona will be the first of the federally recognized regions in a U.S. government pilot program initiative that is set to begin on Thursday February 20.

As a vital breakthrough in justice against domestic violence and cases of sexual assault for native women throughout all tribal nations across the U.S., the Violence Against Women ReAuthorization Act 2013 (VAWA 2013) will eventually be giving indigenous women living on all reservations a solid legal tool for personal protection. This new U.S. legislation will enact specifically to give women ‘Tribal protection orders’ and ‘Tribal jurisdiction over crimes of domestic violence’, along with legal instruments under ‘Amendments to the Federal assault statute’.

“Both tribes and the federal government have authority to exercise criminal jurisdiction over sexual assaults occurring in Indian Country and committed by a Native American, though tribal authority has been severely limited by Congress,” said 2007 Legal Fellow and Doctor of Jurisprudence Rebecca A. Hart of the University of California Berkeley School of Law in a December 2010 report.

“Generally, the discussions surrounding the eradication of sexual assault against Native American women focus on the legal barriers to the prosecution, the punishment of offenders, and the government‟s failure to prioritize this issue,” continued Dr. Hart in her report.

By March 2015 the rest of the Indian tribal nations (governments), which total 566 tribes in full, will be given full federal and legal authority to also begin to prosecute cases of non-Indians involved with domestic violence and other forms of violence perpetrated against native women. This violence includes domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

In 2010 the U.S. Department of Justice outlined that rapes and violent assaults against native women numbered almost 126,000 of the 1.4 million violent crimes on the reservations over a one year period. This number is now considered to be vastly under-estimated as most native women have either been afraid to make reports to police or have realistically doubted that their case could be brought anywhere close to justice. Today one-in-three Indian women continues to be raped within their lifetime, outlines the Justice Department.

“This is just the latest step forward in this administration’s historic efforts to address the public safety crisis in Indian country. Every day, we’re working hard to strengthen partnerships with tribal leaders and confront shared challenges, particularly when it comes to protecting Indian women and girls from the shocking and unacceptably high rates of violence they too often face,” outlined U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to the press.

Grants with the program will also be issued as part of the initiative to train regional police forces how to stay safe and to better handle situations that can bring heightened dangers for women in domestic violence cases. With additional grant monies for native women who are victims/survivors of domestic rape, abuse and violence will also be able to receive expert legal guidance and advice.

“We believe that by certifying certain tribes to exercise jurisdiction over these crimes, we will help decrease domestic and dating violence in Indian country, strengthen tribal capacity to administer justice and control crime, and ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence are held accountable for their criminal behavior,” said U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West.

Legally recognized by U.S. federal agencies under full tribal sovereignty each tribe is recognized with a legal government-to-government relationship with the U.S. government.

While the Violence Against Women Act of 2005 (VAWA 2005) also sponsored U.S. grant monies to strengthen the tribal justice system through improved services, education and legal advice, the 2013 Bill has finally given native women the legal power they need to fully prosecute offenders.

“Many of our elders (including my mother) were raised in boarding schools and were sexually abused by Priests and Nuns,” said Cherokee Pamela Kingfisher in an interview with Indian Country News in March 2012. Born to the Bird Clan Kingfisher now lives in Cherokee County, Oklahoma.

“These are the only ‘schools’ in America that have graveyards, and with babies in them! The poverty, isolation, depression and alcohol abuse will wear a person down to their base selves and they act out in return,” Kingfisher continued. 

The fallout for native women who have faced sexual and/or intimidating domestic violence by those who are considered ‘outsider’ non-indigenous predators can be challenging and life-changing. Some women feel after suffering under a sexual assault that they must leave their home and family on the reservation. This has been due to the fact that their predator is still at large, even though the U.S. government education and legal guidance programs have been in place. Little legal protection in the past leading to case prosecution of criminals though has been offered for women who experienced violence.

“…when I left, I didn’t just leave my family. I left my culture behind… I ran away from my traditions, from my songs, my dances, and my heritage,” said one Tinglet woman who left her home after facing violence.

“Estimates are that nearly 80 per cent of the rapes of indigenous women are by non-indigenous men, many of who have made their way into indigenous communities but who are not presently subject to indigenous prosecutorial authority because of their non-indigenous status,” said James Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in his August 2012 presentation before the UN Human Rights Council.

Today the tide has turned as Native women from three separate Indian nations will now be able feel the power and Law to bring their attackers to legal justice.

“With the important new tools provided by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, these critical pilot projects will facilitate the first tribal prosecutions of non-Indian perpetrators in recent times. This represents a significant victory for public safety and the rule of law, and a momentous step forward for tribal sovereignty and self-determination,” Attorney General Holder added.


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