Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 2016. Photo by National Congress of American Indians / Twitter

Vice President Joe Biden urges early work on Violence Against Women Act

It's not too early to start working on the next version of the Violence Against Women Act, Vice President Joe Biden said on Tuesday.

The law has brought historic changes to Indian Country, including a landmark provision in 2013 that recognized the "inherent" authority of tribes to arrest, prosecute and sentence all people who victimized their partners. But Biden said VAWA always faces a "fight" when it comes up for reauthorization.

"It's hard to believe," Biden told over 5,000 women who gathered for the first-ever United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C.

As a member of the U.S. Senate, Biden sponsored the first version of VAWA that became law in 1994. An update in 2005 recognized the use of tribal court convictions in the federal system, a provision that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous decision on Monday.

United State of Women Summit: Deborah Parker on Indigenous Women and Violence Against Women Act

But Biden pointed out that the tribal jurisdiction provision in S.47, the 2013 reauthorization, drew significant controversy. The effort nearly derailed until Native women came to Capitol Hill to share their stories of survival.

"We came close last time to not getting it reauthorized because we increased protections in Indian nations," Biden told the crowd, which included about a delegation of about two dozen Native women who staked out three tables near the front of the stage and voiced their support for his remarks.

Native women are already laying the groundwork for legislation that would address situations not covered by the 2013 law. The effort starts with a briefing on Thursday that addresses the high rates of victimization in Indian Country.

According to a new Department of Justice report, Native women and men are far more likely to have experienced violence by someone from another race. In particular, 96 percent of Native women and 89 percent of Native men have experienced sexual violence by an interracial perpetrator.

President Barack Obama addresses the United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 2016. Photo: UWS

The National Congress of American Indians, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and the Indian Law Resource Center will discuss the report and other data as they explain why tribes need expanded authority. Crimes against children and assault by strangers, for example, are not covered by 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 summit.

The event included a breakout seminar that featured Deborah Parker, a former vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes who was instrumental in securing passage of VAWA in 2013. She led a group of Native women in an honor song before she told fellow attendees not to forget the first Americans.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Deborah Parker at United State of Women Summit

"We almost were not in the Violence Against Women Act," Parker recalled. "Two days before the vote, they told me, 'I'm sorry, Native women would not be included.'"

That's when Parker decided to share her story of survival, words that led the Senate to put the tribal jurisdiction provisions back on the table. A year later, the provisions were included in the version of VAWA that became law.

"So many of our people have been through sexual assault and violence," Parker said, referring to both Native women and men. "There's a real problem here."

President Barack Obama also addressed the summit and spoke of the need to reduce violence against women and girls. He drew sustained applause when he cited the late Wilma Mankiller, who was the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation, as a trailblazer who "redefined what leadership looks like."

"In other words, our progress has been the result of countless ordinary women and men whose names will never be written into the history books or chiseled on monuments, but who dedicated their lives to ensuring that America lives up to its promise of liberty and justice for all," Obama said.

As the summit wound down, First Lady Michelle Obama and media mogul Oprah Winfrey engaged in a lively and frank discussion. The pair discussed a wide range of topics, from professional to personal to philosophical.

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