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Kerri Colfer

Tlingit tribe of Southeast Alaska

For the past 19 years, April has been recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Sadly, this upcoming April will mark more than that. It will be one year since the House passed the Violence Against Women Act (H.R. 1585). And it will have been one year it has sat in the Senate collecting dust.

As a Native woman and lobbyist advocating for a strong VAWA reauthorization, its current status is personally frustrating and alarming. Native women and children right now are experiencing disproportionate levels of violence at the hands of non-Native perpetrators, yet tribes are unable to stop it. A VAWA reauthorization that excludes the strong tribal provisions laid out in the House version would do next to nothing to stop these crimes.

We know the statistics: 84 percent of Native women have experienced violence. Murder rates of Native women are 10 times the national average in some communities. We also know that the status quo is not working to address this epidemic. We need action on the part of the Administration and Congress.

So what’s the problem?

Senate VAWA negotiations initially broke down in November 2019, with Senators Feinstein (CA) and Ernst (IA) introducing separate bills. For many Native Americans, this delay is a matter of life and death.

This is about the victims and their families who have suffered violence as a result of federal government inaction. This is also about tribal sovereignty and self-determination. The two go hand in hand. Tribes have been given limited resources and little authority over violence in their own communities and yet state and federal governments do little to help – let alone even acknowledge - the need for policies that directly address the jurisdictional gaps allowing perpetrators to continue targeting Native people. Initiatives such as the Administration’s Operation Lady Justice taskforce and Attorney General Barr’s MMIP National Strategy neither address the root causes of this epidemic of violence nor propose a viable solution and path forward.

VAWA was last reauthorized in 2013. At that time, it restored partial jurisdiction to certain tribes over domestic violence cases. In a strong show of bipartisan support, in April 2019 the House version of VAWA expanded this list of crimes to include sexual assault, sex trafficking, obstruction of justice, child abuse, stalking, and assault of law enforcement or corrections officers. The House bill also included a pilot program giving special criminal jurisdiction to a number of Alaska Native villages. We need these provisions in the Senate version as well.

Indian Country and our allies have been doing our part to bring attention to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. We have made our needs clear – restoring tribal jurisdiction is key to putting an end to this ongoing attack on our communities and sovereign rights.

The United States has a federal trust responsibility to Native Americans to uphold and protect tribal sovereignty, including the right to self-govern. In order to prosper and truly thrive, tribal nations need the resources and ability to protect their own communities by prosecuting non-Native perpetrators of violence. The Senate must recognize this trust obligation and do its part to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with restored tribal jurisdiction without undermining tribal courts, just like the House.

As we move into Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we honor the victims of this targeted violence against Native people. We cannot let another year go by without reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. We must also ensure that any VAWA that does pass is one that does not just maintain the status quo, but instead fully restores jurisdiction to tribes so they may directly address this violence. Protecting vulnerable women and children is not a partisan issue and cannot be delayed any longer.

Kerri Colfer serves as the Native American Program Congressional Advocate at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, lobbying on legislation that affects Native communities. Prior to working with FCNL, Kerri - a member of the Tlingit tribe of Southeast Alaska - worked in the Temple Legal Aid Office in Philadelphia, helping clients in both disability and family law matters.