During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we recognize the unacceptable existence of domestic violence in communities across the nation, and we join in strong support of victims and survivors. While this is a sobering time of awareness, it is also a timely reminder for Congress to act on legislation to renew resources for states, local and tribal governments to combat and prevent domestic violence.
Twenty-five years ago, lawmakers in Congress came together to pass and the president signed into law the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which provided hope and support for victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. In the years since then, various Violence Against Women Act programs administered by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) have helped communities and law enforcement address crimes of domestic violence. Rightly so, with each five-year reauthorization, The Violence Against Women Act has sought to improve upon and strengthen the tools available for combating violence against women and vulnerable populations.
Unfortunately, the Violence Against Women Act’s authorization expired in February of this year, causing uncertainty for the entities stewarding resources. While the Senate still has not brought up legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, I was encouraged that the House did so in April. Certainly, there were provisions in the House bill with which I profoundly disagreed. But as a tribal member and supporter of tribal sovereignty, I also recognized the value of several provisions consistent with my voting record on tribal issues and views regarding the protection of Native women and children.
Indeed, reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act is critically important to Indian Country. According to a 2016 study by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, it is estimated that more than four out of five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetimes, and more than half have experienced sexual violence. Native women are more than one and half times more likely than White women to have experienced violence in the past year. Even more chilling, Native women face murder rates more than 10 times the national average in some parts of the country; they are also nearly twice as likely to have experienced rape than non-Hispanic White women over the course of their lifetimes.
Hunters know where to hunt, fishermen know where to fish and predators know where to prey. And sadly, a disproportionate number of sexual predators have preyed on Indian Country and Native women. In fact, 96 percent of Native women victims of sexual violence – nearly all – were wronged at the hands of a non-Native perpetrator.
In writing the House version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, I commend the House Judiciary Committee for putting in specific protections and provisions that expand jurisdiction for tribes to enforce justice on their own tribal lands. As affirmed through trust and treaty obligations and tribal sovereignty protected by the U.S. Constitution, I believe tribal governments should have the same authority as states and local governments to protect women and children in vulnerable situations. And like state and local law enforcement, tribal law enforcement authorities should have access and the use of the same tools to prevent these crimes – on or off the reservations.
Echoing the need for parity, I was proud to join with several of my House colleagues to introduce the Bridging Agency Data Gaps and Ensuring Safety (BADGES) for Native Communities Act. This bipartisan legislation addresses inefficiencies in federal criminal databases and increases tribal access to those databases. In response to the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, the BADGES Act also rightly seeks to improve public data on those cases while promoting more efficient recruitment and retention of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) law enforcement. Moreover, the legislation would provide tribes with resources to improve public safety coordination between their governments, states and federal agencies.
Just as the House has advanced a Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill, the Senate needs to act so both chambers can go to conference and negotiate a final bill that can be signed into law. In bringing something up in the Senate and ultimately finding agreement in both chambers, it is critical that the final legislation includes and protects the same tribal provisions ensuring tribal governments have the resources they need to protect their communities.
U.S. Representative Tom Cole (R-OK-04) is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and is the Ranking Member of House Rules Committee. Cole is currently serving in his eighth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was identified as “one of the sharpest minds in the House,” by Time Magazine and “the hardest working Member of Congress,” by Newsmax. In 2017, Cole was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.