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Rep. Sharice Davids, HoChunk, D-Kansas. (House photo)

Rep. Sharice Davids, HoChunk, D-Kansas. (House photo)

What difference does it make to have Native Americans in the Congress? The debate last week about the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Acrt provided a textbook answer.

Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, D-Kansas, sat in the speaker’s chair presiding over the floor debate. Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, D-New Mexico, introduced amendments that could make the law more effective in Indian Country, and Rep. Tom Cole, Chickasaw, R-Oklahoma, made the bipartisan case telling Republicans about the big picture significance of the bill while urging Democrats to find a compromise that will ensure the bill becomes law. And the fourth tribal citizen in Congress? Rep. Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee Nation, R-Oklahoma, continued his record of voting against the Violence Against Women Act. Mullin is vice chair of the Native American caucus in the House.

The House passed this expanded version of the Violence Against Women Act, including the renewal of the tribal provisions, as well as new measures to improve the collection of data and provide resources to American Indians and Alaska Natives living in cities. And amendment by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, would give five Alaska Native villages new authority to prosecute sexual crimes in a pilot program.

Congress voted 263 to 158 in favor of H.R.1585, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019. Thirty-three Republicans joined the majority Democrats in favor of the measure, but the legislative path through the Senate is complicated by the sharp divisions in Congress and the country. President Bill Clinton signed the act into law in 1994 and it was reauthorized with large majorities in 2000, 2005 and 2013. Despite opposition by House Republicans in 2012 due to its protections for LGBTQ people, Native American women, and undocumented immigrants, it was ultimately reauthorized in 2013.

“As tribal leaders, we have no greater priority than protecting our women, children, and elders,” said Juana Majel, Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians, co-chair of the task force on Violence Against Women for the National Congress of American Indians. “Too often, we as Native women are invisible but today, we celebrate and thank the representatives here for seeing us, for standing with us, and for fighting with us.”

Majel urged the Senate to move quickly to take up this legislation because “victims in Indian Country cannot wait. We will not accept a bill that leaves Native victims behind. They are counting on us.”

Rep. Haaland said after the measure passed that previous versions of the law had a “blind spot.”

“I belong to a community where women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than the national average – and the silent crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women is linked to violence,” she said. The Violence Against Women Act “we passed today is more inclusive and there are provisions targeted specifically at getting justice for women in Indian Country. The protections for tribal communities will have an important impact for children, tribal officers, and the silent crisis of missing and murdered Native women.”

Rep. Cole said on the floor that he was again voting for the law and said the issue should not be partisan. “There are compelling things about this legislation that I believe particularly are consistent with my own views and my own voting record on tribal sovereignty and protection of Native women,” Cole said. “And I want to be supportive where I can be.”

“There are provisions in this version of the reauthorization with which I profoundly disagree – those are particularly related to the Second Amendment,” Cole said. “This includes a misguided provision to strip someone of their right to possess a firearm following a misdemeanor conviction.”

Cole said the Democrats will have to compromise in order for the legislation to actually become law. “My Democratic friends are going to have to do something they haven’t done so far: actually compromise. And they’ll have to compromise with the Republican Senate and a Republican president, or this important legislation will not come into law.”

Another Republican who voted for the measure was Alaska’s Young. In his floor speech, Young said “women in Alaska Native villages suffer the very highest sexual abuse rates in the nation. Alaska Native women are over-represented in the domestic violence survivor population by 250 percent.Alaska Natives comprise about 19 percent of the state’s population y et are 47 percent of the reported rape survivors,” he said. “Yet Native villages currently lack any effective tools to criminally prosecute the offenders. The remoteness and isolation of Native villages – most of which are not connected to the road system and only accessible by air – makes it difficult to prevent violence and care for the survivors.”

“My amendment will open the door to a meaningful pilot project to help overcome these limitations by crafting an “Alaska solution” to a unique Alaska problem, Young said. “Currently, the bill would create an Alaska Native jurisdiction pilot program for five villages, but only covers Native lands that are largely outside of villages. These lands are not where most people live, and therefore not where crimes are committed. My amendment will add jurisdiction for all lands inside Alaska Native villages to cover where the majority of violence actually occurs.”

The legislation moves to the Senate where many of the House priorities come to an end. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decides which legislation will even come up for a vote in that body. While there is bipartisan support for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, there is also significant opposition because of the expansion of transgender rights and a provision that strips gun rights from people convicted of misdemeanor abuse or stalking. The law currently applies only to felony convictions.

The National Rifle Association scored the legislation as an anti-Second Amendment vote. The scorecard is often cited in election materials.

The bill would also end the so-called “boyfriend loophole” that expand gun prohibitions to include dating partners convicted of abuse or stalking charges.

That division was particularly intense in the floor debate. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, was jeered by Republicans as she made her case for those provisions. “Why would you not close a simple loophole that says if someone has been convicted — convicted, not accused! — convicted of domestic violence, that they not have access to a gun,” she said. “Do not let the NRA bully you.”

That is one of the provisions that some Republicans in the Senate hope to remove. Leader McConnell has called for a clean extension of the act without the new provisions. And Senators Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, are working on another version of the legislation.

Rep. David said it was an honor to preside over the debate. “Re-authorizing the Violence Against Women Act will help ensure that all survivors of violence and abuse can receive the support, protection, and justice they deserve,” she said. “I was honored to preside over the House floor as we passed this historic piece of legislation.”

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Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

(Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.)

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