Everything You Need to Know About The GOP’s Opposition To Protecting Native American Women From Abuse
Our guest blogger is Erik Stegman, Manager of the Half in Ten campaign for the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
As the last window of opportunity to pass a fully-inclusiveViolence Against Women Act (VAWA) Reauthorization comes close to shutting in the final days of the 112th Congress, many are wondering why Republican House leadership, particularly Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), are so opposed to the provisions protecting Native American women on tribal reservations. Other Republican leaders — including Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA), John Kline (R-MN), Mike Simpson (R-ID), Tom Cole (R-OK), and Patrick McHenry (R-NC) — have proposed a reasonable compromise that protects Native women, but it puts them at odds with the Majority Leader.
With the Issa compromise on the table and backed by several House Committee chairs, what are Republicans like Cantor still so concerned about that they’re willing to hold up the landmark law that funds services, strengthens law enforcement for domestic violence, and increases accountability for offenders?
Here’s everything you need to know about the GOP’s opposition to new protections for Native women on tribal lands:
1) Non-Native men will continue to receive a jurisdictional free pass for abusing Native women:
In response to the epidemic rates of domestic violence against Native women on reservations, the Department of Justice issued a legislative proposal that would restore Tribes’ ability to prosecute misdemeanor crimes of domestic and dating violence committed by non-Natives against Native women. This proposal also requires that the non-Native offender either live or work on the reservation and be in an existing relationship with the victim. DOJ statistics show that 3 out of 5 Native women had been assaulted by their intimate partners and 56 percent of American Indian women have non-Indian husbands.
Today on Indian reservations, the local governments don’t have the ability to respond to domestic violence crimes in their community if the perpetrator isn’t Native. Without this ability, non-Native offenders often go unpunished on tribal land because the only ones who can bring them to justice are federal prosecutors who are often hundreds of miles away and lack local resources to properly investigate and prosecute these crimes. The result, according to a recent National Institute of Justice (NIJ)-funded report, the offenders become emboldened, and the violence escalates to rape and in some cases homicide. On some Indian reservations, the homicide rate of Native women is 10 times the national average.
2) Republicans are more concerned with Non- Native perpetrators than Native victims:
So why do some Republicans like Cantor still have issues with a well-reasoned, narrowly-scoped DOJ proposal to reduce violence against Native women on reservations? An unbalanced concern for the rights non-Native men accused of these crimes. Even though the current Senate version of VAWA includes a full set of constitutional protections for suspects of abuse, including due-process rights and a right to counsel, Cantor and other Republicans continue to stall the VAWA Reauthorization because of baseless constitutional concerns for those accused of abusing Native women.
In the spirit of compromise within their own caucus, Issa and his colleagues proposed a powerful extra protection for defendants in their bill last week: a new right to remove the case to a federal court if the defendant’s rights are violated by a local tribal court. Although advocates for Native women would prefer to see the Senate version passed, this compromise is a reasonable way to get a deal done and improve the system of justice on reservations. It will clarify that all persons who commit a crime of domestic or dating violence on an Indian reservation will be arrested and held accountable, regardless of their race.
3) Local tribal law enforcement is more responsive to Native women:
The Senate version of VAWA would end jurisdictional black holes that give non-Native men a free pass to abuse Native women and evade justice. It would provide local tribal law enforcement with the much-needed ability to investigate and prosecute crimes against Native women in their own communities, just as other state and local authorities do for other victims in the country. Prosecuting these crimes requires sensitive and time-consuming work with family and community members. Tribal prosecutors are down the street on the reservation and work closely with the tribal police who respond to these crimes. Restoring local control will provide the victim, the family, and the community the ability to seek responsive justice locally. There’s no reason that their ability to fully prosecute these crimes should rest on the skin color of the accused abuser.
My question for Congress was and has always been: why did you not protect me, or my family? Why is my life, and the life of so many other Native American women, less important?”
—Deborah Parker, vice chairwoman, Tulalip Tribes, April 25, 2012.
On April 24, Deborah Parker, vice chairwoman of theTulalip Tribesin Washington State, visited Congress regarding an environmental protection matter. She stopped by Senator Patty Murray’s office and asked how the Senate reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was proceeding. Staff members informed her that despite the efforts of Senator Murray and others, provisions to protect Native American women would not be included in the bill.
Parker was devastated. She had been abused as a child and has also witnessed rape and abuse many times on the reservation. Each time the “non-Indian” perpetrator wasn’t prosecuted because tribal authorities only have jurisdiction over Native Americans, and state and federal authorities were unresponsive. This is a crisis not only for the Tulalip Tribes, but also on reservations across the country, where non-Indians are permitted to commit violence against Native women with impunity.
“I don’t feel people understand,” Parker tells me. “On the reservation there is such a feeling of despair—it’s not a matter of is it going to happen, it’swhenis it going to happen? Perpetrators even mock Indian women because they know they will not get prosecuted.”
The statistics are indeed horrific:one in three Native women will be rapedin their lifetimes; two in five are victims of domestic violence; three out of five will be physically assaulted. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be assaulted—and more than twice as likely to be stalked—than other women in the US. On some reservations, the murder rate of Native women is ten times the national average. According to the Indian Law Resource Center,88 percentof these crimes are committed by non-Indians—the majority of the population residing on reservations is now non-Indian—and US attorneys are declining to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse matters referred to them.
As a result, the Department of Justice under the Obama Administration proposed that VAWA reauthorization allow tribal courts to prosecute cases of domestic and dating violence, and violations of restraining orders, where a non-Indian has a clear relationship with a tribal member. It is a limited reform—it doesn’t address stranger-on-stranger violence, rape, or sexual assault, for example. Still, it’s an important advance in addressing a situation which Parker describes as allowing non-Indians to “come on the reservation and commit heinous crimes and walk off and little to nothing occurs.”
After receiving the news from Murray’s staff, Parker attended her next meeting on the Hill. But she didn’t finish it. She returned to Murray’s office and asked to see the Senator.
Murray left the Senate floor within ten minutes and met alone with Parker, whom she has known through many years of working together on tribal issues. The moment Murray saw Parker she said, “You’re it”—that Parker was the person they needed to be a spokesperson on this issue. Murray told her that she would hold a press conference the next day, and that Parker should just “tell the story that’s most important to you—I want people to understand how this is affecting tribes.”
On April 25, Parkertoldof being “one of many girls” violated and attacked as a toddler on the reservation in the 1970s, and how the man responsible was never convicted. She spoke of an occasion in the 1980s, when she hid her younger cousins while listening to the screams of her aunt who was being raped by four or five men—the perpetrators were never prosecuted. She described her realization that “the life of a Native woman was short,” and consequently “fighting hard” to attend the University of Washington, where she studied criminal justice in the 1990s “so that I could be one to protect our women. However, I am only one.” She asked Congress to support the new provisions in VAWA to help protect Native women: “Send a strong message across the country that violence against Native women is unlawful and it is not acceptable in any of our lands.”
It was a turning point in the Senate’s work on the bill. It passed that month with sixty-eight votes, including fifteen Republicans—the kind of bipartisanship that is almost unheard of these days—with the new protections for Native women, and also for undocumented immigrant women and theLGBT community.
But in May the House passed a stripped-down version of the bill that contained none of these key provisions. Only six Democrats voted for it and twenty-three Republicans opposed it. Speaker John Boehner then used aprocedural maneuverto avoid reconciling with the Senate on a final VAWA bill. Five House Republicans—led by Illinois Congresswoman Judy Biggert—wrote aletterto Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor urging them to adopt the stronger Senate provisions and move to a final bill.
Yet the legislation languished—until now.
Perhaps sensing from the 2012 election results that the GOP has a serious problem when it comes torelating to womenwho live on this planet and in this century, Cantor is now negotiating with the Senate andVice President Biden—who sponsored the original VAWA in 1994. Word is Cantor has relented on the provisions for the LGBT community and undocumented immigrant women. He refuses, however, to consider any provision that gives tribes any kind of criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.
While President Obama and the Vice President have met personally with Parker and other tribal leaders—“they get it,” she says—GOP leadership has so far declined. Last week, when Parker and others asked to join a meeting arranged by tribal lobbyists in DC, she says they were initially told “there wasn’t enough room” and that “they would only meet with our two non-Indian lobbyists.” In the end, she and two female tribal leaders were included in the discussion with Cantor’s staff members.
“But why isn’t GOP leadership having us at the table to have this discussion?” says Parker. “If they truly want a solution then you sit down with the very people who this bill affects.”
Still, Parker and others close to the negotiations are hopeful. Republican Representatives led by Darrell Issa and Tom Cole—a member of the Chickasaw Nation—have pushed for a compromise that allows non-Indian defendants the right to remove the case to a federal court if they can prove their rights have been violated by a local tribal court. (Issa tried to offer this proposal as anamendmentwhen the House Judiciary Committee originally worked on the bill in the spring, but GOP leadership didn’t allow a vote on it.)
Sources close to the negotiations tell me that we are now running out of time to pass this bill and that the next 48 hours are crucial. If the final bill isn’t approved, Native American groups who have pushed for this for ten years—and steadily worked on this reauthorization for three years—will be forced to start over from scratch.
“If this doesn’t pass it would be one of the worst messages we could send to Native American women,” says Parker. “It would be devastating to communities all over Indian country, and would send a clear message to perpetrators. It would leave reservations wide open for continued abuse.”
You can tell House Republicans to pass a VAWA that includes these protections here.