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Native women confront high rates of violence in Indian Country

Filed Under: Law | National | Politics
More on: abuse, alaska. s.1474, appropriations, crime, doj, house, ilrc, joe biden, jurisdiction, lisa murkowski, ncai, niwrc, republicans, s.1474, senate, supreme court, terri henry, tom cole, tribal courts, vawa. s.47, women, youth
     
   

Terri Henry, a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, speaks at the National Congress of American Indians winter session in Washington, D.C., February 25, 2015. Henry serves as co-chair of NCAI's Task Force on Violence Against Women. Photo by Indianz.Com

Native women rallied on Capitol Hill on Thursday as they continued efforts to reduce high rates of violence in Indian Country.

The National Congress of American Indians, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and the Indian Law Resource Center hosted an overflow crowd at the U.S. Capitol to discuss a new report from the Department of Justice. The data confirms that Native women and men are victimized at rates far higher than the rest of the population and that most of the perpetrators are from another race.

But Terri Henry, a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said she was surprised by the latest findings despite of her years of work on the issue. According to the report, 84.3 percent of Native women and 81.6 percent of Native men have experienced violence in their lifetimes.

"This research that came out was alarming and shocking," said Henry, who co-chairs NCAI's task force on violence against women. "It's really kind of made us stand back and think, 'It's worse than we were saying.'"

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, agreed with that assessment. In light of the high rates, she vowed to push for an expansion of tribal jurisdiction and to use her position on the Senate Committee on Appropriations to ensure funding comes to Indian Country.

"This should be a call to action, a call to congressional action," Murkowski said of the report.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was equally supportive. He said the expanding tribal authority was one of the best ways for Congress to help address the problem.

"We've got to empower people to police their own communities and to hold people that are committing horrific acts," said Cole.

Both Murkowski and Cole reminded the crowd that the tribal jurisdiction provisions in Violence Against Women Act did not come without a fight. Republicans in the House and the Senate balked until Native women came to Capitol Hill to share their stories of survival, they noted.


Native women rallied at the U.S. Supreme Court on December 7, 2015, as the justices heard Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a tribal jurisdiction case. Photo by Indianz.Com

Three years after S.47 became law, tribes are slowly but surely arresting, prosecuting and sentencing non-Indians for abusing their partners. VAWA requires them to protect the legal rights of defendants, such as providing an attorney for those who cannot afford one and convening juries that represent the entire community.

"It's quite apparent that the dire predictions of what might happen, that we all heard throughout consideration of VAWA in 2013, have not come to fruition," Murkowski said.

The briefing marked a key step in efforts to educate Congress about the issues facing Indian Country. Earlier in the week, Vice President Joe Biden said it's not too early to start talking about the next version of VAWA.

"Since the Violence Against Women Act is next up for reauthorization in 2018, now is the time to ignite the conversation," Biden said at the United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C., an event attended by about two dozen Native women, on Tuesday.

A day earlier, U.S. Supreme Court upheld a provision in the 2005 version of VAWA that recognizes tribal convictions in order to punish people who repeatedly abuse their partners. Native women and their advocates said the unanimous decision confirms the role tribes play in addressing domestic violence in their communities.

Native women are now looking for ways to address situations not covered by the 2013 version of VAWA. That includes preventing abuse against children and prosecuting a wider range of rapes and sexual assaults committed by non-Indians.

Murkowski also hopes to focus on the unique situation in Alaska. Tribes in her state were initially excluded from VAWA until Congress passed S.1474, the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act, in December 2014. Moving forward will require new approaches, she said.

"If we just keep recycling the old ideas that got us nowhere then we're not going to change these numbers," Murkowski said.

National Institute of Justice Report:
Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men (May 2016)

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