Today, President Obama signed into law the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. This Act strengthens the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with increased protections for Native American women and other victims previously left vulnerable by gaps in the law. During the signing ceremony the President emphasized, “Tribal governments have an inherent right to protect their people, and all women deserve the right to live free from fear. And that is what today is all about.
Making Native American communities safer and more secure has been a steadfast priority of the Obama Administration. Currently, Native American women are more than twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence as non-Native women. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 46% of Native American women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner in their lifetime. One regional survey conducted by University of Oklahoma researchers showed that nearly three out of five Native American women had been assaulted by their spouses or intimate partners. Tribal leaders tell us the actual rates of victimization may be even higher, since the justice system’s failure to adequately respond leaves many Native American victims unable to safely come forward with their stories.
In July 2010, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA), which provided for enhanced sentencing by tribal courts. Upon signing the TLOA, the President stated that the prevalence of violence against Native American women remains “an assault on our national conscience” that “we cannot allow to continue.” The tribal provisions included in the reauthorization of VAWA give tribes important new tools to help address this problem.
Tribal governments — police, prosecutors, and courts — are essential to the response to these crimes, but have long lacked the authority to address them effectively. Prior to TLOA’s enactment, no matter how violent the offense, tribal courts could sentence Indian offenders to only one year in prison. Even worse, since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1978, tribal courts have had no authority to prosecute a non-Indian who commits domestic violence, even if he lives on the reservation, works for the tribe, and is married to a tribal member.
Not surprisingly, abusers who are not arrested are more likely to repeat, and escalate, their attacks. Research shows that law enforcement’s failure to arrest and prosecute abusers both emboldens attackers and deters victims from reporting future incidents. In short, the jurisdictional framework in Indian country has left many serious acts of domestic violence and dating violence unprosecuted and unpunished. The reauthorization of VAWA signed by President Obama will empower Indian tribes to protect all Native American women in Indian country, at long last.
Following up on countless reports from Native women and tribal leaders, the Administration, led by the Department of Justice, consulted formally with the tribes and then developed and submitted to Congress a proposal to address the jurisdictional barriers that have allowed crimes of domestic violence in Indian country to go unprosecuted. Because the Justice Department’s proposal was ultimately included in the VAWA reauthorization bill, tribes will now be able to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators of domestic violence against Native American women in Indian country. The new law also clarifies that tribal courts have full civil jurisdiction to provide Native American women the safety and security of protection orders. And the new law gives additional tools to federal prosecutors to combat severe cases of domestic violence.
These provisions were included in the VAWA reauthorization along with other victims who face additional barriers to escaping violence. The strengthened VAWA reminds us that a victim is a victim, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, or tribal affiliation, and all are worthy of protection. A broad coalition of advocates joined in championing those victims’ voices to Members of Congress. As active members in that coalition, tribal leaders and advocates worked with Senators and Representatives of both parties to ensure the victimization of Native American women did not fall victim itself to Washington politics. In the end, the bill passed with broad bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.
Passage of VAWA’s tribal provisions is a critical piece of the President’s larger agenda to make Indian country a safer, more prosperous place for the next generation of Native Americans. The Obama Administration looks forward to partnering with Indian tribes to implement all of the new provisions included in the VAWA reauthorization law.
Jodi Gillette is the Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs
Charles Galbraith is an Associate Director in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs