WMC News & Features

Native American Women and VAWA — What’s at stake?

Wmc Features Sheila Jackson Lee 101718
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., has introduced a comprehensive reauthorization of VAWA. (Photo courtesy of Sheila Jackson Lee)

Earlier this month, the Republican Congress failed to reauthorize the 24-year-old landmark Violence Against Women Act. After 46 Republicans sent a letter to Majority Leader Paul Ryan, urging him to not let the popular legislation lapse, Congress passed a temporary budget extension that funds VAWA grants through December. Advocates worry the delay signals a desire to repeal certain VAWA measures, a controversial move Republicans may rather do after the midterm election. 

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2018, introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., is the only comprehensive reauthorization bill that has been introduced. While the bill has 173 co-sponsors, no Republicans have signed on and it has failed to move forward in the House of Representatives. The proposed reauthorization includes new provisions that would expand tribal jurisdiction and increase safety for Native women, who are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or abused than women of any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S.

According to the National Institute of Justice, the research and reporting arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, eight in 10 Native women will be raped, stalked, or abused in their lifetime, and 97 percent of those crimes are perpetrated by someone who is non-Native. While there is no national database of missing and murdered indigenous women, on some reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate ten times higher than the national average. Due to a complex web of federal laws and statutes, tribes had been prohibited from prosecuting non-Native perpetrators who commit these crimes on tribal land.

The 2013 reauthorization of VAWA changed that. After Native advocates fought for decades, Congress restored tribal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators for the crimes of domestic violence and dating violence. Since VAWA 2013 became law, tribes have been able to arrest and prosecute some of the most violent abusers, who had been operating with impunity. Since 2014, the Tulalip Tribe in the state of Washington arrested 17 non-Native perpetrators of domestic violence on their reservation who together had a total of 171 previous contacts with tribal law enforcement, from a time when the tribe was prohibited from arresting them.

While VAWA 2013 was groundbreaking, the restoration of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians was limited to domestic violence and did not include the crimes of murder, kidnapping, sexual assault, rape, sex trafficking, or child abuse. In addition, due to a technicality in the legal definition of Indian Country, 228 of the 229 tribes in Alaska are completely left out. Given the crisis level of violence in Indian Country, especially in Alaska, these jurisdictional loopholes need to be closed.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and other advocacy organizations are calling for restoration of tribal jurisdiction over sexual assault and child abuse cases, improved data collection and sharing between tribes and the federal government, increased funding for tribal law enforcement and courts, and eliminating the legal loopholes that leave Alaskan women particularly vulnerable. Currently, there are five different bills in Congress that address these issues; most are still in committee. The Jackson Lee VAWA reauthorization bill includes most of these provisions, and if passed would greatly improve the safety of Native women and other vulnerable groups. Four standalone bills could pass independently of VAWA and currently have bipartisan co-sponsors.

  • Introduced by Senators Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Tom Udall, D-N.M., the Native Youth and Tribal Officer Protection Act would restore tribal jurisdiction over both child abuse and assault against a law enforcement officer. According to the NCAI, tribes who arrested non-Native abusers for domestic violence reported that children were victims or witnesses in 60 percent of cases. While Native children are more likely to experience abuse than children of any other race, tribes are still prohibited from prosecuting non-Native child abusers. Additionally, tribes have no prosecutorial power over people who resist arrest or assault tribal officers, a common occurrence in domestic violence calls. The bill was introduced in December 2017 and was assigned to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
  • Senators Murkowski and Udall have also co-sponsored the Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act, which would restore tribal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators for the crimes of rape, sexual assault, and sex trafficking. The bill was assigned to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in October 2017 and has not left committee.
  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced Savanna’s Act to address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. The bill is named after Spirit Lake Dakota and Turtle Mountain Chippewa citizen Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was brutally murdered in 2017 by her Fargo neighbor after her baby was cut from her body while she was still alive. The bill aims to improve data collection and response protocol, including adding tribally issued protection orders to existing national databases. The act, introduced last year, has not yet left committee.
  • The SURVIVE Act would amend the 1984 Victims of Crime Act to include a 5 percent allocation from the Crime Victims Fund to tribes. While a budget authorization increased funding this year, the SURVIVE Act would make the spending measure permanent. Arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning perpetrators is extremely expensive. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal court systems and jails are funded at only 3 percent of their needs. Unlike local and state governments, tribes do not collect taxes, and for years they have been left out of federal funding streams that help local governments fight crime. The bill was passed by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

All of the provisions to restore jurisdiction to tribes in these proposed bills, including VAWA, do not include 228 of the 229 tribes in Alaska. Because of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the 1998 Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government Supreme Court decision, Alaskan tribes are left out of the legal definition of Indian Country. Because of this technicality, laws that restore tribal jurisdiction on tribal land do not include Alaskan Native villages. Alaskan Native women face some of the highest rates of violence in the country and in remote villages have little access to law enforcement, resources, and protection. Currently, there is no proposed legislation in Congress to address this crisis.

Michelle Demmert is a citizen of Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and a Supreme Court Justice for her tribe. In the past two and half years, two Native women have been murdered in her family village of Klawock, Alaska, a community of 800 people. “We have so many young women whose lives were taken when they were very young, and there is no one held accountable for these crimes,” she says. “I don’t think our Congress has a clue about the situation in Alaska.

More articles by Category: Politics, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Native American, Activism and advocacy, Domestic violence, Law



Rebecca Nagle
Writer and Organizer
Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.