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Native American Women Become Bargaining Tool in VAWA Congress Negotiations

Tribal protections for Native women and families are being used as a bargaining chip in latest effort to get VAWA passed in the lame-duck sessions.

Tribal protections for Native women and families are one of the main issues being used as a bargaining tool by lawmakers in a last-ditch effort to get the Violence Against Women Act passed in the lame-duck session of Congress.

A Huffington Post report surfaced on the evening of December 6, suggesting that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was stalling a possible conference agreement between the Senate and House due solely to the Native American protections offered in the Senate bill.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., confirmed that notion on the Senate floor, saying that Republican leaders were blocking an agreement due to their disagreement with Native protections, which in the passed Senate bill include provisions that would give tribal courts jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes on reservations.

The passed House version does not include those tribal court provisions, instead allowing for a battered Native woman – or a tribe on her behalf – to file in U.S. District Court for a protection order against her alleged abuser, whether Indian or not, who committed the abuse on Indian land.

But Cantor’s office pushed back, with Cantor spokesman Doug Heye telling Indian Country Today Media Network, “There are many problems with the Huffington Post report.” Heye would not say specifically where Cantor stood on the Native protections, but he did note that the headline of the Huffington Post article had changed four times, each time softening Cantor’s position against the Native provisions.

Cantor’s office also confirmed that Vice President Joe Biden’s staff had been negotiating with Cantor’s staff to try to come to a deal on VAWA. “Our staffs continue to work towards a compromise on those multiple provisions outstanding in the hopes of finding a solution to pass the bill as quickly as possible,” Heye said.

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White House spokesman Shin Inouye said on the evening of December 6 that the Obama administration still supported the Senate version of the bill. Whether Biden is willing to negotiate on that position has not been confirmed by his office, but Indian officials in Washington, including the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), are closely monitoring the situation.

NCAI officials had been discussing having a press conference on the evening of December 6 when it became clear that a Biden-Cantor compromise was in the works. But as the evening wore on, a vote did not happen, and plans for a press conference were put on hold.

All the while, U.S. Rep Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, has been working with his Republican colleagues to try to get the Senate pro-tribal version of the bill through Congress.

Cole, a Chickasaw citizen, told ICTMN in a recent interview that he supports the Senate version of the bill, and he has been working hard to educate his colleagues on the Native provisions.

“I have had an opportunity to talk to some people who say this would be unconstitutional,” Cole said. “It’s not unconstitutional! It’s clearly within Congress’ purview to give tribes the ability to have effective police power and protection of their own territory.

“There are 535 members of Congress, and 534 of them could go on the Sioux Reservation, commit a crime, and not be subjected to local jurisdiction,” Cole added. “If I did it, though, I would be, because I’m an Indian. We trust tribes to have jurisdiction over Native Americans. As long as you give people the right to appeal, they ought to be subject to tribal jurisdiction.… Most American communities have local jurisdiction; Native Americans do not. It’s not right. I will vote with the Democrats on this if an amendment or recommit is offered. I hope we can get it done this year.”