The U.S. Department of Justice told the Associated Press that it will double the funding it grants tribes for public safety programs and crime victims as it seeks to address the disproportionately high-rates of violence against Native American women.
DOJ officials are seeking to provide an approximate $113 million in public safety funding for 133 tribes and Alaska Native villages, according to Jesse Panuccio, the Justice Department’s acting associate attorney general. An additional $133 million will be awarded in a few weeks to serve efforts to help Native American crime victims.
Panuccio told the AP’s Mary Hudetz, “We recognize the serious nature of the problem we’re facing and we are trying through a variety of strategies — both through the funding and the use of our own prosecutors, and building up awareness — to address these issues.”
Funding needed amidst devastating statistics
To many tribes, such funding directed toward assisting violence against women in Native communities has been a long time coming. For many generations, Native American women have faced horrible statistics of violence, sexual assault and murder. Federal figures show that more than half of Native American women and girls have encountered sexual and domestic violence at some point during their lives.
At the end of 2017, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database had 633 open missing person cases for Native American women. One look at social media referencing #MMIW (highlighting the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada) or #MMNAW (highlighting the missing and murdered Native American women in the U.S.) show missing and/or murdered Native women numbering into the several thousands.
According to the Associated Press, only 47 of the nation’s more than 573 federally recognized tribes are part of DOJ’s Tribal Access Program, which allows them to exchange data with national crime information systems for civil and criminal purposes. The DOJ has been allocating funding to bring more tribes. Up to 25 are expected to join the program in the next year.
Though efforts are slowly being made to include all tribes into DOJ’s database, a report from 2016 shows that U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 46 percent of reservation cases for criminals on tribal lands.
At a previous meeting this year with tribal leaders and federal officials regarding violence against Native women, Panuccio identified domestic violence and sex trafficking as two key issues potentially linked to the disappearances of women in Indian Country, he maintained improving the responses of law enforcement on or near reservations or Alaska villages could help.
Tribal leaders and victim’s families have shared that crimes against Native women are often not taken seriously and authorities do not participate in searches. In Alaska, state authorities have been accused of misclassifying homicides as suicides.
The Violence Against Women Act
On Tuesday, September 18th, U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp voted with a bipartisan majority in the Senate to extend the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, for two months to prevent it from expiring at the end of September. But she also called on Congress to quickly pass a long-term reauthorization to give certainty to victims of domestic violence and law enforcement agencies that depend on VAWA programs to crack down on abuse.
Historically, it is a rare gesture rare for Congress to temporarily reauthorize an existing program, such a move serves to show the importance of VAWA. The House is expected to pass the short-term extension of VAWA to keep it from lapsing at the end of September. A long term extension of VAWA, which will be necessary when the short term extension expires in December, has been introduced in the U.S. House and includes Heitkamp’s Savanna’s Act, a bill to help combat the epidemic of murdered and missing Native women and girls.
Last fall, Heitkamp introduced Savanna’s Act to help combat the epidemic of murdered and missing Native women and girls. The bill has gained bipartisan support in the Senate.
“Since serving as Attorney General for North Dakota in the 1990s, I’ve committed to never stop fighting to end domestic violence and protect victims of these horrible crimes,” Heitkamp said in a release. “That’s why VAWA was the first bill I cosponsored in the U.S. Senate in 2013 – and ensured that provisions for landmark protections of Native women and tribal authority were included. For too long, crimes of domestic violence hid in the shadows – and VAWA helped make major changes so abusers could no longer get away with such terrible actions. But there is still much work to do.”
“Now, Congress must quickly pass a long-term extension of VAWA to give victims of abuse the resources they need to seek justice and recover from the trauma they’ve endured. Law enforcement agencies and victim service providers rely on VAWA to bring justice to criminals. It is also critical that we continue to increase the protections for Native women and look at expanding tribal authority where appropriate so that abusers can no longer escape punishment in Indian Country.”
The Hill recently reported that Moderate Republican members in the House are calling on leadership to bring the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to the floor before it expires on Sept. 30.
Reps. John Katko (R-N.Y.), Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) sent a letter on Monday to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) urging swift action on VAWA as there are now only seven legislative days remaining on the calendar.
“Since being signed into law in 1994, VAWA has helped to protect and support millions of Americans who have faced domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking,” they wrote in the letter.
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor and senior correspondent, Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling