Lessons for 2019 from Past Reauthorizations of VAWA and FVPSA

Looking back at 2018, we leave behind a year of increased awareness of the far-reaching impact the spectrum of violence has on the lives of Native women, their families, communities, and Indian nations. Vigils, community searches, marches for justice, press conferences, and demands upon federal agencies and Congressional leadership to respond to the crisis of MMIW reflected the collective response to not remain silent to the crisis of missing and murdered Native women.

Looking forward, 2019 presents the daunting challenge to reauthorize the two landmark pieces of federal legislation which are the underpinnings of services for tribal victims of domestic violence and sexual assault: the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA). For many in the movement, we are familiar with the challenges to reauthorize VAWA and FVPSA and the importance of strategic clarity on the reforms required to determine which of the many barriers must be removed to advance to the next stage in restoring safety for Native women. We are also mindful of the urgency to act because each day under the current failed system translates into lost lives.

While some might still say violence occurs in all communities, we have reached the point at which even Congressional leaders understand the disappeared are undercounted and the numbers of Native women who are missing or murdered is shocking given the size of our population. But what are the hurdles that must be removed in 2019 to continue the progress made over the last two decades?

Tribal Recognition, Jurisdiction, and Resources
During each reauthorization, significant advances were accomplished to provide Indian tribes the recognition, jurisdiction, and resources to protect Native women under VAWA, FVPSA, and TLOA. These advances are stepping stones to continue unraveling the barriers embedded in federal law and infrastructure. VAWA in 2000, raised the tribal set-aside to 10% confirming recognition of the importance of Indian tribes receiving direct and adequate federal funding. VAWA in 2005 included the creation of Tribal Title XI. Safety for Indian Women, and the creation of a tribal office to administer funding and policy development with Indian tribes. In 2013, VAWA restored specific jurisdiction to Indian tribes over non-Indian abusers. These historic changes in law cut away large slices of the legal barriers and provided essential resources to implement the reforms.

Similarly, in 2019 the movement must look far and wide into the future when making the list of reforms or new laws to include in the reauthorizations of VAWA and FVPSA. Also, changes to the Victims of Crime Act must be added to the organizing agenda as it is now the largest source of funding for tribal victim assistance. The vantage point from which to view this legislative struggle should as in the past include the proper recognition of Indian tribes as sovereigns, the full legal authority or jurisdiction to act, and the required resources to implement tribal sovereignty under both.

A Tribal Framework
From the early days of VAWA, the movement of advocates for safety has clearly connected safety of Native women to the sovereignty of Indian tribes to protect women. These tribal advocates understood this relationship organically because of their lived experience as tribal women of sovereign nations. Our movement was blessed with the leadership of Tillie Black Bear (Sicangu), Karen Artichoker (Oglala Sioux/Hochunk), Brenda Hill (Siksika), and many others. It was also blessed with strong allies and national leaders of the battered women’s movement such as Ellen Pence, Barbara Hart, and others who recognized the sovereignty and separate governments of Indian tribes and included Indian tribes as sovereigns under VAWA in 1995. Many of these beloved women of the movement have passed over, and new leaders have emerged. The reform efforts of these national leaders, Native and non-Native, are embedded in VAWA and FVPSA.

Looking Forward to 2019
Every reauthorization challenges our movement to look far and wide into the future. Worries. Anxiety. Nervousness. All words to be connected with 2019 reauthorization of VAWA and FVPSA. Words encouraging a look at past reauthorizations and words of caution because federal legislation impacts all Indian tribes and the stakes are high for Native women seeking safety from violence.

Are there lessons to share from the past? A list to help guide? Issues to avoid? Items not to be compromised, traded for something less? Fortunately, these lessons can be found in numerous written documents.

In 2003, the movement had discussions to reach unity on a National Agenda for Restoration of Safety for Native Women. This unity was based on a common framework providing an analysis, components, and clarity on far-reaching reforms to guide national action on the 2005 VAWA reauthorization. In general, the 2005 National Agenda was correct in that it won, achieved enactment, and after more than a decade the Safety for Indian Women title continues to provide a tribal framework for increasing safety of Native women. A read of the critical components to developing the 2005 agenda is very timely and extremely helpful to those participating in the 2019 VAWA and FVPSA efforts.

Continued Growth of a National Movement to Increase the Safety of Native Women
In 1995, many advocates, such as Tillie Black Bear, concerned the new tribal VAWA program would be administered through state governments met with the newly created Office on Violence Against Women. The tribal advocates from years of helping battered women, and as survivors, clarified the new VAWA required the programs be administered by Indian tribes. Native women required services developed from a tribal framework based on their beliefs and healing ceremonies, and in the context of tribal law. The day-to-day operations of services and protections under VAWA needed tribes as governments to actively implement VAWA as sovereigns. These advocates shared how protections were locally based in their tribal communities and recovery from abuse was also found in the healing ceremonies of their beliefs, practices, and traditions. The state and federal systems’ failure to protect Native women or hold abusers accountable is not a recent experience but a historical pattern. Further, the western adversarial justice system, based on the fear of incarceration, offers only a short-term solution for abusers and not real change or a healing approach for women, their families, or communities.

Of the many lessons, over nearly two decades of legislative reform efforts, two are central. Legislative reforms must be tribally based, developed, and implemented. And not all legislative reforms strengthen the tribal response or make a difference in the day-to-day protections needed by Native women.

A safety gauge for review of proposed federal reforms is the participation of survivors, advocates, and Indian tribes. The umbrella of the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Indian Women established in 2003 continues to provide such a working group, and the NCAI resolution process continues to provide a vetting process for the inclusion of Indian tribes on national reforms. Organizing toward reauthorization of VAWA and FVPSA in 2019 provides the opportunity for the continued growth of the national movement and the urgently needed changes to increase the safety of Native women.

Many of the 2019 proposed changes to VAWA and FVPSA have been discussed at NCAI Task Force meetings and supported by NCAI resolutions, regional organizations of Indian tribes such as the Alaska Federation of Natives, and raised by tribal leaders at annual consultations. The reforms proposed are not new ones. They are the priority issues of the ongoing struggle of the movement for safety and justice for Native women. Key to 2019 passage of these reforms, as in the past, is the ability of the movement to unite and organize at the tribal, regional, state, and national levels.

Components Considered in the Development of the 2005 National Agenda for Safety:

  • Recognition of the inherent right of Native women to fulfill their life journey free of violence and terror of the threat of violence;
  • Recognition of the inherent sovereign right of Indian tribes to self-government and therein the protection of Native women according to their tribal beliefs, lifeways, and laws;
  • Recognition of the inherent sovereign right of Indian tribes to self-government and therein the authority and resources to implement such authority to safeguard Native women from, or threat of, physical and sexual assault, stalking and murder;
  • Recognition of the right of Native women to live free of violence and the threat of violence and access to protections to safeguard this right from or threat of physical and sexual assault, stalking and murder;
  • Recognition of the right of Native women to live in housing that is free of violence or threat of violence and access to safe housing, including shelters and transitional housing, as places to live safe from perpetrators of violent crimes against Native women;
  • Recognition of the right of Native women to access health care providers to treat injuries inflicted from battering, sexual assault, and physical attacks;
  • Recognition of the right of Native women to economic independence and access to resources to economically survive independent of perpetrators of violence; and,
  • Recognition of the right of Native women to live in tribal communities, as well as American society, that culturally respects Native women and rejects the colonial legacy of portrayals of Native women in disrespectful and genocidal manners.



Jacqueline “Jax” Agtuca,
Editor, Restoration