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Let Us Protect Our Communities

I have been taught that “no nation is truly defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground.” Native women have strong hearts, but that strength is constantly challenged by the high rates of domestic violence on many Indian reservations. Of course, domestic violence is not limited to women and it is not limited to adults. It has an effect that passes down through the generations. We all dream that our children can live and grow up in a safe place, with loving adults. From such a foundation, our children will create safe and healthy families of their own, free from the scourge of domestic violence. It is well known that domestic violence is a behavior that starts at one level and often escalates over time to serious injury or even death. Tribes need the authority to intervene in early incidences of domestic violence. Only by doing this can we break the chain of domestic violence that weighs down our communities.

The pending Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization presents an extraordinary opportunity to address the startling lack of law enforcement response to, and prosecutions for, incidences of domestic violence on Indian reservations. After years of struggling with this issue, those of us who live in Indian country have realized that the answer does not lie with the Federal and state governments, but with ourselves. We need to have in place systems of justice that will put fear in the heart of those who consider evil deeds, while also assure that all members of our communities have their basic rights protected. To do this, our Tribal courts must have authority to exercise limited domestic violence criminal jurisdiction over all individuals with close ties to tribal communities who commit domestic violence offenses on Indian lands. Only at the local level can we create the credible community expectations and standards that will significantly reduce this crisis.

There have been calls for alternate answers to the issue of domestic violence in Indian Country, but we who live there and know the problem first-hand can see no solution, short of tribal jurisdiction over domestic violence crimes, that will truly deter predators and assure justice for domestic violence victims. Indeed, the solution we seek—acknowledging and strengthening the power of local jurisdictions to respond to local problems—is one that is common throughout the country to address issues of crime and violence and achieve justice in the most effective manner possible.

The tribal criminal jurisdiction provision of the Senate VAWA bill is widely supported in Indian Country and by the United States Department of Justice. Though the House-passed VAWA reauthorization bill did not originally include a similar provision, many members of the House of Representatives have recognized the critical need for a tribal jurisdiction provision in the final VAWA. Last week, Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA), Tom Cole (R-OK), Patrick McHenry (R-NC), and Mike Simpson (R-ID) introduced a bill that would supplement the existing House VAWA bill to include special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction for tribes.

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I am encouraged to see reports that House Republican leadership is working with Vice President Biden and House Democratic Leadership to reach agreement on an inclusive final VAWA bill. I commend these efforts to find a workable compromise and strongly urge congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to continue the hard work to pass a VAWA reauthorization that includes meaningful protections for all domestic violence victims, including criminal jurisdiction for tribal courts in instances of domestic violence. 

From many conversations with both Republican and Democratic Members of Congress, I know that we all care deeply about our family, friends, and loved ones and that we all want to stop the scourge of domestic violence. In this, we have a common humanity which rises above philosophical and political differences. We appeal to the leadership of the Congress on the grounds of this shared humanity to reach a compassionate solution that extends the most basic of legal protections to all victims of domestic violence, no matter where in the United States they happen to live, and that empowers Tribal communities to enforce these values on their lands.

Brian Patterson is a Bear Clan Representative to the Oneida Indian Nation's Men's Council and Clan Mothers, tribe's governing body, responsible for directing policy for the Oneida Indian Nation, a position he has held for the past 20 years. Patterson has dedicated himself to the cultural and historical revitalization of the Oneida people and has worked diligently over the past two decades to ensure that his tribe provides means for the well-being of the seventh generation to come.