WASHINGTON – A Feb. 12 Senate vote to renew the Violence Against Women Act has many across Indian Country breathing a little easier.
“The Senate’s reauthorization is a great thing for Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Native Americans,” CPN vice chairman Linda Capps said. “The fact is that Native American women face a domestic violence rate at more than twice the national average. We have a responsibility to protect the women of our communities from violence. This act empowers our courts to protect the mothers, daughters and sisters of our great tribe and community.”
First passed in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act is credited with reducing domestic violence rates by two-thirds nationwide. It was renewed in 2000 and 2005 with bipartisan support and was brought forward for renewal in 2012 during the 112th Congress before stalling in the House of Representatives. Sen. Patrick Leahy (I-Vt.) reintroduced the bill last month with 61 co-sponsoring senators.
If enacted, the version passed by the Senate last week will provide a limited expansion of tribal jurisdiction by allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-Natives accused of domestic violence or date-related violence against Native women on Indian land rather than passing those cases on to federal officials. That jurisdiction would not extend to crimes committed on non-tribal land or to crimes outside VAWA’s scope, such as robbery or identity theft.
According to the Indian Law Resource Center, non-Natives are responsible for 88 percent of all crimes committed against Native women. Figures from a 2010 Government Accountability Office report showed that federal prosecutors declined to pursue two-thirds of sexual abuse cases from Indian Country between 2005 and 2009.
“The statistics recorded bring up many mixed feelings concerning the honor, safety and lives of Native women,” Northeastern State University graduate student Elsie Whitehorn said. “We have a long history of being mistreated, captured, raped, violated and murdered. The lack of equal protection is unwise and unjust. I find it absurd that it took our policy makers this long to reauthorize a very important act.”
The bill passed by a 78-22 margin, with all 17 women in the Senate supporting the measure. Among the 22 men who voted against the bill’s passage were Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the vice-chairman of the Indian Affairs committee, both Oklahoma senators and senators from eight additional states with at least one Indian reservation.
“This would trample on the Bill of Rights for everyone who is not Native American,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said. “I am 100 percent certain that the first portion of this bill (the tribal provisions) will be tossed by the first federal judge who hears it.”
Coburn introduced three amendments to the bill, including one that would have removed the specific protections for American Indians and Alaska Natives.
“Most tribal courts don’t recognize the Bill of Rights,” Coburn said. “Some do, but the vast majority do not. Can we as a Senate forget that and put some of our citizens under the jurisdiction of a sovereign nation?”
Under the Indian Civil Rights Act, tribal courts are required to provide defendants the same rights that they would have in state or federal court.
All three of Coburn’s amendments were rejected Monday. A similar amendment sponsored Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) was previously voted down.
With Tuesday’s passage, the bill now moves to the House of Representatives. During his weekly press conference Thursday, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said a decision has not been made as to whether the House will vote on the Senate’s version or its own version. The 2012 proposal did not include the expanded tribal jurisdictional provisions.
“We are delighted that both the Senate and the House have recently taken steps toward reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act,” said Donna Mathews, associate director of Domestic Violence Intervention Services, Inc., in Tulsa, Okla. “This past Tuesday, the Senate passed SB47, a bill to reauthorize VAWA. The companion House Bill, HR11, which is identical to SB47, has been introduced by Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). Both bills are very similar to SB1925, the legislation passed by the Senate during the last session of Congress. This version expands protection for Native women from the current status – in that non-Native people who commit certain crimes against Native people on Indian land would be able to be prosecuted by the tribes.
“This would provide sorely needed protection for Native women, especially, but would protect both men and women who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault on Indian land at the hands of non-Natives who have previously seldom suffered any consequence for their crimes.”
Walkers and volunteers release purple helium-filled balloons in honor of domestic violence victims to conclude the Six Nations Walking Together Against Domestic Violence event held Oct. 26 at the Standing Bear Museum and Cultural Center in Ponca City, Okla. According to the Indian Law Resource Center, non-Natives are responsible for 88 percent of all crimes committed against Native women.
NATIVE TIMES FILE PHOTO