More than two hundred people gathered Tuesday night for a vigil and prayers remembering missing and murdered Indigenous women at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
Four empty chairs were wrapped in shawls of different colors, each representing how Indigenous women experience violence. One for domestic violence, another for murdered and missing women, “and we also have a white shawl because with all the things that happened to the women in our nations, we want to remember that they have children and those children suffer,” said Carmen O’Leary, Cheyenne River. “And in the case of the murdered and missing women, we lose whole generations.” O’Leary is vice chair of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.
The vigil was held in the museum’s courtyard. It’s perhaps the only spot on the Washington Mall where you cannot see a visible presence of the Capitol building (the plaza is surrounded by thick foliage). Yet the invisibility of lawmakers seems appropriate because Congress, and the law itself, has failed to protect Native women.
“When we talk about what murdered and missing, we've talked a lot about those statistics,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, Cherokee. “They're terrifying. I think we can all agree they reached the point of a crisis, but there's something more than just the statistics, right? It's about the response and the lack of jurisdiction.” Nagle is an attorney with Pipestem Law and a playwright.
She told the story of Olivia Lone Bear. When Lone Bear went missing on the Fort Berthold reservation her brother asked law enforcement from the tribal, state, and federal governments to search for his sister, especially near bodies of water. She went missing in November of 2017 and they just recently found her body where her brother had repeatedly asked for a search. “I think that just shows that is what happens with the jurisdictional gap because so often the response from tribal police, and rightfully so because they don't want to get into trouble, is ‘we don't know if we have jurisdiction.’ The United States Supreme Court and our Congress, the framework of laws that had been created, tell our tribal government, you don't have jurisdiction over a non-Indian who murders a Native woman on tribal lands,” Nagle said.
“The first question our nations have to ask before they can even think about arresting anyone is who is the perpetrator? And if you're stuck on that question, that prevents you from actually performing the search and rescue mission,” Nagle said. “Our people desperately need … jurisdiction.”
Nagle said there is a false narrative about tribal authority, a story incorrectly framed by the Supreme Court of the United States. In the 1978 Oliphant decision, by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians was dismissed as “a relatively new phenomenon.”
“My great, great, great grandfather was the speaker of our Cherokee Nation tribal council. He signed his name on a law that the Cherokee Nation passed at a time when the state of Georgia had instructed its military to rape women as a tactic for removing us,” Nagle said. “So the Cherokee Nation said it would arrest, prosecute any person.”
She said: “I don't think 180 years of that kind of jurisdiction or practice constitutes a relatively new phenomenon.”
However the September 11 vigil was about prayer and memory, not legislation. Yet only a few hundred yards away, the Congress was debating -- or more accurately not debating -- the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act or VAWA. That law expires on Sept. 30. The law provides financial resources to tribes as well as a process for the prosecution of non-Indians for domestic violence.
This week some 46 Republicans wrote a letter urging House Speaker Paul Ryan to call up VAWA for a vote. “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,” read the letter. “This landmark legislation has drastically improved our nation’s response to these crimes and has contributed to the overall declining rates of domestic abuse since its enactment.”
One proposal for a VAWA reauthorization would require the federal government to produce annual statistical reports on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and improve to the federal crime database. This would be new. The theory, then, would be that federal agencies (and law enforcement) would have more resources to track and follow leads for prosecution.
“We know firsthand the devastating impact violence has had on our tribal communities,” said Leanne Guy, Navajo, director of the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition.
“We see and hear the stories of violence as it plays out in our communities. We feel the heart wrenching pain of what our tribal communities are going through. We hear the deep soul level cries from family members … They did not deserve, no one deserves to leave this world in such a violent way, but they did largely in part because of who they were. Native women and girls,” Guy said. “We know the injustices in how many of these cases are handled.”
Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisconsin, said “it’s unbelievable” that Native women experience such high rates of violence and a ten-fold murder rate. “Why are we here tonight? Why are we remembering these awful data? When you think of the women that continue in our community, that come up missing, that can't be found. No law enforcement agency is vigilant about tracking down and finding out what happened to them. There's no nightly news caster wondering where our sisters are.”
Moore said Native women deserve better, and, “I'm going to be here with you every step of this fight.”
“American Indian, Alaska Native women have to constantly look over their shoulders to make sure they are safe in their own tribal societies,” said Juana Majel Dixon, Pauma Band of Mission Indians. Dixon leads the National Congress of American Indians task force on domestic violence. “All our relatives have been impacted by the loss of such important Native women in their lives.”
(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)