On March 13, 2019, House Republicans tried to repeal a crucial provision in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) which was included in the 2013 reauthorization of the Act and would be further expanded in the current reauthorization bill. This political move was terrifying to Natives throughout the United States, regardless of tribal affiliation.
The statistics are clear and have been made available to the Republicans that voted to remove protections for Native women in the Violence Against Women Act. Over 84 percent of our women will be physically abused in our lifetimes and over 56 percent of us will be sexually assaulted in our lifetimes. Unfortunately, the statistics do not tell lawmakers how many of us will be assaulted multiple times in our lifetimes. The statistics do not speak to the damage caused through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, addiction or other co-occurring issues that go hand in hand with abuse.
What we do know, and what lawmakers know, is that the majority of perpetrators of violence against Native women are non-Native men.
Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) recently argued, as he did during the 2013 reauthorization, that subjecting non-Native men to tribal prosecutions would violate their constitutional rights as citizens of the United States. However, Representative Sensenbrenner, and those who vote with him, have no problem prosecuting Natives who commit crimes anywhere in the United States as we are subject to tribal law, state law, and federal law. When Natives commit crimes, they are prosecuted. Representative Sensenbrenner, and those who vote with him, have sent a message loud and clear to Natives that when Natives are beaten, raped, or murdered the perpetrators should not be held to account.
If I drive to the state of Texas and break the law, I will be subject to the laws of the state of Texas regardless of my tribal affiliation or the protections guaranteed to me through my own tribal laws and constitution. If any United States citizen goes to Canada or Mexico and breaks the law, they are subject to the laws of those Nations regardless of the protections guaranteed them as citizens of the United States. This is no different.
My message is clear, “If you don’t want to be subject to tribal law or be prosecuted in a tribal court, don’t go into Indian Country and commit a crime."
I am quite certain that Representative Sensenbrenner would publicly support the Golden Rule that we all grew up with, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This is all we are asking for. If Representative Sensenbrenner can be fairly certain of a prosecution should one of his loved ones be beaten, raped, stalked or trafficked, then why shouldn’t we be fairly certain of the same?
Even with added protections for Native women in the Violence Against Women Act, there are still many hurdles to overcome before a tribal government can prosecute a non-Native perpetrator. Does the perpetrator have sufficient ties to the tribe? Did the incident take place on trust land or fee land? Is the crime that was committed included in Violence Against Women Act? Currently, if a non-Native comes into Indian Country and breaks into a woman’s home, beats her, rapes her, and then murders her, he may only be prosecuted for beating her IF prosecutors can show that he has ties to the tribe but even then, the only crime that can be prosecuted would be the beating. The breaking and entering would not be prosecuted, trespassing would not be prosecuted, rape would not be prosecuted, and murder would not be prosecuted by the tribe. Under the proposed Violence Against Women Act, we would only add the prosecution of the rape.
Our women are suffering and dying. This is our reality every day. Our Native people are mourning every day over the injustice we see when our women are abused and killed. Our communities are suffering, and our children are growing up with rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that rival the rates for combat veterans because they are subject to abuse either directly or by witnessing it.
Outside of Indian Country, none of this would be tolerated.
I would think that as we see cut after cut to budgets on both the state and federal levels that the addition of tribal law enforcement, tribal prosecutors and tribal courts would be welcome assistance in getting criminals off the streets for the safety of all Americans.
Olivia Gray, BSM, MBA, is a citizen of the Osage Nation and the Director of the Osage Nation Family Violence Prevention Department. These are her opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Osage Nation or any of its elected leadership.