Al Jazeera Highlights Failure of Violence Against Women Act to Protect Native Women

Students of all ages are learning their Native languages through a language preservation effort within the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in the Reno-Sparks area of Nevada.


A recent episode of the Al Jazeera English program The Stream examined the failure of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to provide adequate legal protection to Native women. Guests featured in the September 18program, Sarah Deer (Muscogee Creek Nation), assistant professor at William Mitchell Law School; Andrea Smith (Cherokee), co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence; and Rebecca St. George (Fond du Lac Ojibwe) of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, discussed the causes of sexual violence against Native women—and the failure of VAWA to protect them.

With 1 in 3 women in Indian country reporting some type of sexual violence, and many more unlikely to ever report the crimes committed against them, St. George insisted that most Native women are survivors. “Most Native women I know,” she said during the broadcast, “have been raped.”

Native women are also murdered at rates 10 times the national average, and are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than any other group. Violence against Native women is a human rights crisis.

Despite assault rates in Indian country that rival those of sexual violence in war zones, republicans in the House of Representatives have opposed the Senate-approved provisions put in place in VAWA to protect Native women—along with immigrants and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) women.

The Stream broadcast aired at a significant time. On September 13, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed VAWA into law, but VAWA has not been reauthorized since 2006, a casualty of partisanship at the federal level. Significantly, when Joe Biden was a senator representing the state of Delaware, he led the initial campaign to make VAWA a law. Then-Senator Biden drafted the legislation, which passed with bipartisan support. Now, 18 years later, House conservatives have opposed the law’s reauthorization. Meanwhile, senate democrats and republicans have passed a version of VAWA that includes provisions protecting Native, immigrant and LGBT women.

In a statement made on the 18th anniversary of VAWA, President Obama said that since VAWA was passed, annual rates of violence against women dropped 60 percent. President Obama added, “...reauthorization of a strengthened VAWA languishes in Congress.” The White House supports the bi-partisan Senate version of the law, which was introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).

A recent White House blog post, co-authored by White House Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs Jodi Gillette and White House Advisor on Violence Against Women Lynn Rosenthal, says: “Tribal police, prosecutors, and courts have had significant success in combating crimes of domestic violence committed by Indians in Indian country, but tribes cannot prosecute a non-Indian, even if he lives on the reservation and is married to a tribal member. As a result, all too often, non-Indian men who batter their wives or girlfriends go unpunished. One provision of the Leahy-Crapo bill addresses this legal gap by providing tribes with concurrent authority to hold domestic violence perpetrators accountable for their crimes against Native women—regardless of the perpetrator’s race.”

On The Stream broadcast, Sarah Deer explained that Native women are often targeted by sexual predators because local tribes cannot arrest or prosecute offenders on tribal land. The overwhelming majority of those criminals, about 88 percent, are non-Natives. Though there are “up to three different entities that could intervene” at the federal, state, or tribal level, Deer said, perpetrators are rarely penalized.

Whether the perpetrator is a Native man or non-Native local resident, victims are forced to literally live with their rapist on or near tribal land, further victimizing the victim and tearing the social fabric of Native communities.

Smith testified to the intergenerational trauma in communities where Native children were abducted from their homes, subjected to sexual violence and other types of violence, and then returned to their homes once they’d reached age 18. During the Al Jazeera broadcast she identified the Boarding School Healing Project as one program working to repair the damage done to Native Americans, damage that is often expressed in high levels of violence against women. Smith added that accountability structures that were in place in Native communities to protect women were destroyed by U.S. policies.

Deer picked up this theme and talked about the interrelationship of residents in tribal communities. She said that rape is such an important tool in waging war because it is so effective in tearing women away from their communities. Deer added that the Native communities outside the U.S. with similarly high statistics of rape and sexual assault are located in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—countries, she said, with histories that are similar to our own.