WASHINGTON – It’s been two months since the U.S. Senate voted 68 – 31 to approve a reauthorization of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) that included major tribal court jurisdiction and protection order provisions for tribes in the lower 48 states. The U.S. House in May passed its version of the legislation sans the same pro-tribal protections. Since then, a delegation of Indian women has taken shape nationwide to work to get the legislative branches to negotiate a deal that strongly supports Native women and their families.
Deborah Parker, vice-chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington state, was part of a group that came to D.C. the week of June 25 specifically to work Capitol Hill, pressing the flesh with legislators who might not understand the epidemic of violence that faces Indian women and families on some reservations. She said at a press conference on June 26 that she’s heard many recent stories from Native women whose abusers were never prosecuted because of lacking jurisdiction facing tribes under the original VAWA law. The stories mirror her own tale of personal abuse that she shared at a D.C. press conference before the Senate passed its legislation in April.
“I am a survivor of sexual and physical violence,” Parker said through tears then, explaining how her abuse began when she was a toddler by “a man who had no boundaries for a little child’s life.” The man was never convicted, she shared, imploring the tribal protections be made U.S. law. She said such protections could change the lives of today’s Native women and children so they never have to face an ordeal like hers.
Theresa Sheldon, a legislative policy analyst with the Tulalip Tribes, said that the delegation does not want to see a VAWA bill passed into law “by throwing out the provisions and throwing under the bus the Native American women.” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, has played a role in helping organize the Indian woman, and she has agreed that no compromise should move forward without the tribal provisions.
In total, about 30 Native women and additional male tribal leaders and activists representing the United South and Eastern Tribes and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, have canvassed the halls of Congress, explaining to legislators the differences in the versions of the passed legislation—and the very real consequences those differences could have on the safety of Indian people. Hundreds of other concerned tribal and women advocates have attended rallies on Capitol Hill, making their voices heard.
Since the victory in the Senate and loss in the House, many tribal leaders have asked tribal citizens nationwide to phone or fax their U.S. congressional leaders to make clear this is an issue that has high stakes. According to federal data, 34 percent of Native women will be raped in their lifetimes, 39 percent will be subjected to domestic violence, and non-Indians commit 88 percent of crimes against Native women, but tribal courts aren’t able to rectify the problems due to current federal legal restrictions.
Under the passed Senate bill Section 904, tribal courts are granted jurisdiction over non-Indian domestic violence offenders, while Section 905 allows for tribal protection orders involving “any person,” including non-Indian offenders. The House bill offers none of those protections, 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. Federal protection of Native families has already proven to be greatly inadequate, so this House provision is widely seen as a weak remedy.
Some supporters in the House, like Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisconsin, easily understand the tribal advocates’ arguments. Moore has personally gone to bat with her congressional colleagues specifically on the importance of getting Indian provisions in a final version of the legislation, which would have to be signed by President Barack Obama to become law. He has vowed the veto the House legislation if it were sent to his desk, but has expressed support for the Senate plan.
Moore, noting that she has previously been a victim of dating violence and rape, said at a press conference on Capitol Hill in May that Indian women need to feel safe on Native lands. "As woman of color, I am particularly aggrieved that this bill ignores the special circumstances of women who are minorities," she said of the House version. “Women who are in the shadows.”
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said during House debate of the bill that he supported the stronger Senate protections, but he said tribal sovereignty could only be strengthened if the bill made it to conference committee between the Senate and House, which is why he voted in favor of the weaker House bill. Cole is Chickasaw and the only current member of Congress who is American Indian.
But the committee process to date has been held up due to bureaucratic wrangling, largely because Republican House leadership has called the Indian provisions and others aimed at protecting immigrants and LGBT women “unconstitutional,” and the leadership wants them removed by the Democratic Senate leadership in order to proceed to conference. “We’re eager to get to conference to work this out,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, told The Washington Post on June 26.
Steel said that Democratic senators working to get the bill negotiated “should talk to Sen. [Harry] Reid about removing those unconstitutional provisions.” But the Obama administration and outside legal experts have said the tribal provisions are fully constitutional, and Democratic senators have framed the issue as Republicans not wanting to protect all women.
Native women are happy to have many legislators in the Senate and House on their side, but the fear is that in order to get a compromise bill negotiated between the chambers, some congressional allies may be willing to let the tribal provisions drop or become weakened. In that case, the status quo, where Native women have faced a much higher risk of abuse, would remain, and the victories won in the Senate to date will not have mattered.
“Dropping the Indian provisions from the final bill should be a fireable offense,” said Pamela Stearns, a citizen of the Tlingit Indian Tribe and an outspoken leader for women’s rights who has pressed for pro-tribal VAWA passage. “If anyone in Congress agrees to that, they should be forced to explain to Indian country just how they think they can bargain away our honor, our dignity, our pride, and our safety.”
Below is a video of Sen. Al Franken, D-MN, crying while discussing VAWA on the Senate floor.