Reauthorization of VAWA: Safety of Native Women and Sovereignty of American Indian and Alaska Native Nations

“I remember as a little girl laying on top of a slope as a sentry watching for agents to warn our parents and the elders doing ceremony. Our spirituality was made illegal, outlawed.” —Tillie Black Bear, Grandmother of the Movement for Safety, and Founding Member of NIWRC

The movement for the safety of Native women emerged in the 1970s as Native sisters helped each other seek safety. It developed as a resistance to the violence perpetrated against women of sovereign Indian tribes and Alaska Native Villages.

The struggle emerged in resistance to the violence committed against Native women but also intertwined with the resistance to actions by the federal government toward tribal governments as tribal nations. These remembrances highlight the difference between the political relationship of American Indian women as citizens of sovereign nations and women of other races.

“I remember as a girl being taken to the BIA government school. I told my mother I did not want to go but she said they would come and take me away by force if I did not. I did not speak English and the BIA had the authority to remove me from my parents. It was a place where I saw violence for the first time and children cried silently to avoid more punishment. I learned out of fear not to talk.” —Lenora Hootch, Director, Yup’ik Women’s Coalition, and NIWRC Board Member

These human rights crimes committed against Native women and girls performed under the legal authority of the United States were not based on race. The federal departments of War, Interior, and Justice wrested their authority to commit these human rights violations against Indian nations and Native women of these sovereigns.

The colonization of American Indian tribes and later Alaska Native Villages created the immoral yet legal license for the United States government to violate the very rights of Indian tribes it claims sacred. Denial of religious freedom, right to liberty and justice, and equal protection were among the stark denials of basic human rights. This political exercise of authority by the United Sates over Indian nations made legal the trafficking of children, rape of women, theft of land, and destruction of livelihoods and economies—in short, the destruction and diminishment of the governments of Native women.

“I am a citizen of my tribal nation and struggle for the recognition of my government to be restored the authority and resources to fully protect all of our citizens. The violations against our women happened because of our political status that makes us vulnerable to predators.” —Carmen O’Leary, Executive Director, Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, and Vice Chair, NIWRC Board of Directors

For Native women and Indian tribes, the 2018 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) falls in the context of this political and legal relationship established at the very formation of the United States. With each past reauthorization (2000, 2005, 2013), VAWA has reaffirmed the authority of Indian nations and provides resources to tribal governments to enhance their response to violence against women. While much remains to be done, recognizing the responsibility of the United States to the safety of Native women based on their political status and not race is fundamental to restoring the right of Native women to the protection of their tribal nations.

Recognition of this distinct political status of Native women within Title IX. Safety for Indian Women of VAWA provides the proper political framework and legal context to fulfill the purpose stated by Congress to “strengthen the sovereign authority of Indian nations to respond to violence against Indian women.”

By understanding this distinct history, current reality, and political relationship, the broader national movement to end domestic and sexual violence can firmly support the lifesaving tribal amendments required to protect American Indian and Alaska Native women as citizens of their nations. The struggle to achieve the lifesaving tribal reforms to support the full authority of tribal governments is a challenge to the national movement to conceptualize American Indians not as people of color based on race but their political status as citizens of specific Indian nations numbering more than 560 separate governments. The singular view of American Indian as a race ignores the reality of these separate indigenous peoples with distinct languages, histories, spiritual beliefs, governments, and many more unique realities.

It is also the opportunity to address the resources owed to Indian nations by the commitment made by the United States to assist tribal governments in maintaining safe communities—a commitment made in exchange for the lands and natural resources upon which the United States developed as a country.

Each VAWA reauthorization has challenged the national movement and Congress to more fully understand the impact of the complex political relationship between Indian nations and the United States that places Native women and children in danger as a population.

The national movement must continue to inform Congress and rise to the challenge of extending to all American Indian tribes and Alaska Native Villages the authority to provide the same protections and services VAWA affords to other governments. Restoring safety and justice to American Indian and Alaska Native women will be reached by recognizing the political status of Native women and strengthening the sovereignty of Indian nations to protect women. This struggle is organically linked to strengthening the sovereign right of American Indian tribes and Alaska Native Villages to continue their efforts toward nation building.

“A commitment was made by the United States to assist Indian tribes in maintaining safe communities. Federal legislation such as VAWA, FVPSA, and VOCA are examples of ways Congress can work to fulfill this commitment.” —Cherrah Giles, Chair, NIWRC Board of Directors

Advocates, tribal leaders, tribal coalitions, allies, and the general public gathered in the Nation’s capital at the National Museum of the American Indian on September 11, to honor Native women and girls who are missing or who have been murdered. The candlelight vigil included a shawl ceremony, a drum circle, and heartfelt prayers. The event was intended as a moment of healing, one where advocates and leaders could come together and pray for a solution to this crisis that many of their communities must constantly confront.

“The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center organized the vigil in the hope that it will continue to be replicated across tribal communities and will mobilize grassroots tribal advocates, tribal leaders, Members of Congress, and staffers towards drafting and implementing legislation that addresses the full breadth of violence against Native women,” said Lucy Simpson, Director, NIWRC. “It is essential that Congress find a way to assist tribes in the protection of Native women and girls. Tribes, as sovereigns, are in the best position to care for their people and this care must include the ability to prosecute non-Natives for violence committed on tribal land.”

Speakers at the event included: Representative Gwen Moore, NCAI Task Force Co-Chair Juana Majel Dixon, Caroline LaPorte, Mary Katherine Nagle, Leanne Guy, Carmen O’Leary, and Florence Choyou, the mother of a Hopi woman who was murdered.

The need to educate federal partners, Members of Congress, allies and the general public on gender-based violence issues in tribal communities is timely. The Violence Against Women Act, which includes necessary protections for American Indians and Alaska Natives, would have expired September 30, 2018 but is currently funded through December 7 as part of the continuing resolution passed by Congress. Movement has been made, including a 2018 Reauthorization bill from Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, which includes provisions to address the crisis of missing and murdered, but Native women experience particular vulnerabilities that make a delay of passage problematic. Native women are incredibly vulnerable, experiencing violence at astronomical rates:

More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women (84.3%) have experienced violence in their lifetime, including:

  • 56.1% who have experienced sexual violence
  • 55.5% who have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner
  • 48.4% who have experienced stalking
  • 66.4% who have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner (NIJ, 2016).

For the 56.1% of Native women who reported having experienced sexual violence, those same women also reported that 96% of this violence was perpetrated by at least one non-Native perpetrator.

This is relevant due to Supreme Court Decision, Oliphant v. Suquamish (1978), which had the effect of prohibiting tribal governments from prosecuting non-natives for crimes they commit on tribal lands. Advocates and tribal leaders continue to call for a full Oliphant fix in order to address the crisis of missing and murdered, as well as to address other forms of gender-based violence that Native women experience.

“In 1978, our Tribal Nations were stripped of our inherent jurisdiction to protect our own citizens on tribal lands. But we weren’t stripped of our voices. We stand together to speak out and honor the sisters, mothers, aunties and friends we have lost. And we pledge to do all that we can to restore the jurisdiction that has been taken away.” —Mary Katherine Nagle, Partner, Pipestem Law

I would like to thank all of you for attending tonight’s vigil for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Friends and family members of victims, advocates, legislators, judges, tribal citizens, allies, and those who have traveled from far away for tonight, thank you for coming to hear our voices on this crisis that is sweeping across Indian tribes and North America.

The purpose of our vigil tonight is twofold. First, we want to bring attention to this crisis that has a significant impact on our tribal nations. Second, we want this vigil to be a healing time for those who are left with the physical, emotional, and spiritual scars from this crisis and to remember and honor our lost sisters.

In the United States, American Indian and Alaska Native women have to constantly look over their shoulders to make sure they are safe in their own communities. Today in 2018, American Indian and Alaska Native women experience a rate of homicide that is 10 times above the national average in some counties. It is undeniable that our sisters face one of the highest rates of murder in the United States.

When a Native woman goes missing or is murdered, not only is she harmed, but her family, friends, and community are left devastated by the loss of her life. Sometimes those she has left behind search for years for answers, with little help from local authorities. Many times, tribes do not have the resources or even the jurisdiction to investigate their cases. The families of victims have no resources or services to turn to in their time of need.

The epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls must stop, we as Native women, advocates, leaders, legislators, and allies must take action to guarantee that no other woman is taken from this world before the Creator is ready to greet her.

Tonight we gather together in this place to create a sacred space to help heal our sisters, our mothers, our aunties, our daughters, and all of our relatives who have been impacted by the loss of an important Native woman in their life. We seek to remember who these women and girls were and honor their memory as we go forward from this place.

I pray that through our ceremonies and songs tonight we will help comfort each other and renew our spirits to keep searching for answers and to protect the next generation from this crisis. So that our daughters, granddaughters, and great granddaughters can live in a world where there will be no need for them to constantly look over their shoulder just to stay safe as all of us have done and must still do today. It is time for healing. It is time for a change.