Native American and congressional advocates of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) are frustrated that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., held up a compromise in the waning days of the 112th Congress that would have allowed the legislation to become law, and delivered protections they say are necessary to decrease violence against Indian women.
“It was an inexcusable failure by House Republican leaders and one that will have real-life implications for women who now find themselves with nowhere to turn for help,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and a leading supporter of the tribal provisions, wrote on her website. “It was also another reminder, coming on the same day that House Republican leaders refused to pass aid to states ravaged by Superstorm Sandy, that these leaders continue to answer to the most radical elements of their party regardless of who or what is at stake.”
The main sticking point in getting a VAWA compromise that would have passed in the House and Senate, Murray and other congressional sources say, was Cantor’s opposition to the tribal provisions of the Senate version of the bill passed in April. Those provisions would allow tribal courts to have jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes of violence on Indian lands—an ability that tribal courts currently do not have, which is one reason why non-Indian violence on reservations is so high, according to Indian advocates.
Federal statistics indicate that the violence rate experienced by Indian women and families is the highest among any racial group in the United States, and a large part of the problem is the ability of non-Indian perpetrators to harm Indians without fear of facing a tribal court. Instead, the feds are left with the job of prosecuting those crimes, and federal justice officials have said they don’t have enough resources to handle all of those cases.
The House passed a version of VAWA in May that was different from the Senate’s version in several ways, including the tribal provisions. These differences had to be reconciled by the end of the 112th Congress in early January in order for the bill to go to President Barack Obama for signature, but a compromise bill was never put to a vote. And because of that, VAWA, first passed in 1994, expired altogether.
Many tribal advocates, including those in Congress, have said the concerns about the tribal provisions don’t make sense. Case in point: one of the main arguments against them has been that they aren’t constitutional, but the U.S. Justice Department says they are. Supportive Congress members have said the provisions are no different than those in other laws that give communities the right to police themselves.
When asked why Cantor opposes the Senate tribal provisions, his spokesman, Doug Heye, said Cantor was attempting to come up with a compromise with Vice President Joe Biden. He would not say specifically what Cantor’s problem was with the Senate bill, nor whether the Majority Leader believes the Indian provisions to be unconstitutional. Officials affiliated with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) say Cantor was willing to bargain on some aspects of the tribal provisions, but was keen to keep much federal oversight in any compromise, such as by requiring Attorney General approval of tribal court jurisdiction case by case, and he did not want to codify “inherent tribal authority” to exercise the criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.
Throughout the fall and into early January, many tribal advocates made pleas to Cantor’s office and to other members of Congress to pass the Senate version of the legislation. These pleas were enough to get Cantor to the bargaining table, but they were not enough to get him to strike a deal that Indian country could accept; and even Biden’s attempt to iron out a compromise, as he did with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the “fiscal cliff” deal, did not succeed.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a Chickasaw citizen of Congress, also pushed hard for a deal from the Republican leadership, working with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to offer a bill that would protect the Senate tribal provisions in the House. As 2012 came to an end, Cole remained optimistic that the Republican leadership would come up with a compromise. The congressman said in mid-December that there had been “productive meetings” with Cantor. “Majority Leader Cantor appreciates the seriousness of the problem and is genuinely trying to find an appropriate solution that can pass both houses of Congress,” Cole said. “In my view, the best remedy is to provide tribal communities with the same authority granted to every other local municipality to police their communities and protect their residents. There is bipartisan support to give tribal law enforcement authorities the necessary jurisdiction and resources to combat the epidemic of domestic violence against Native American women in Indian country… This is a serious problem that is not going away, and we’ll continue to work for a solution in the next Congress… “
Deborah Parker, vice-chair of the Tulalips Tribes, visited Washington D.C. several times in the months leading up to the House Republicans’ decision not to move forward. She and other advocates used social networking tools to urge Indians to contact Cantor’s office and other members of Congress to explain why the tribal provisions are desperately needed. “We are writing to you as Native women,” said one open letter to Cantor posted on Parker’s Facebook page by Sarah Deer and Bonnie Clairmont, two Indian advocates for women. “Tribal nations have a long history of protecting women. Our systems are fair to every person, regardless of race. As someone who values small, local government we respectfully request that you restore tribal sovereignty over this small portion of crimes that hurt us so deeply. The Senate version of VAWA as well as the Issa/Cole bill will offer our local communities more options in the face of violence. It will also have the potential to lessen our dependence on federal prosecutors so that we can continue to thrive as sovereign nations. This narrow legislation is specifically designed to help us help ourselves.”
In the waning days of the 112th Congress, no one on the tribal side wanted to accept an outcome from the House that was weaker than the Senate provisions, so the goal became to start anew in the 113th.
Already there is movement on that front. Murray has personally asked Parker to work with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to work on a new Senate version of VAWA that will prove even stronger for tribal communities in the long run. Parker was more than ready for this call to action, proclaiming to her Facebook friends in Indian country: “Ladies & gentlemen... IT’S ON!”