There is a lack of support for the amendment of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to include Native American reservations, despite advocacy campaigns and the overwhelming amount of data to show its need. In the powerful interview of Caroline Atone, an indigenous woman and member of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Tucson, Arizona, she describes the psychological and physical abuse that she suffered at the hands of the people she trusted the most.
She was only six years old when she was first molested by five different extended family members and only eight years old when she contemplated suicide (NBC Left Field 2018). Antone’s story alone is not unique, but contributes to a prevalent epidemic Indigenous women face across the United States: statistically three out of five Native women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, with non-native abusers being most common offenders (Bendery).
If the Violence Against Women Act protected all Native women, there would be justice, equal treatment, and prosecutorial power delegated to indigenous victims and survivors of sexual assault. If the federal government reauthorized the authority of VAWA 2013 and delegated jurisdiction to indigenous nations to allow them to successfully prosecute offenders on Native soil, Indigenous women would gain a powerful voice for themselves and their culture that could transcend to mainstream society.
The importance of the Violence Against Women Act is that it would dramatically allow for advocacy and long overdue justice for victims of violence and sexualt assault. Reauthorizing the act would effectively:
Continue existing grant programs to local law enforcement and battered women shelters, but would expand efforts to reach Indian tribes and rural areas. It would increase the availability of free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, […] and provide training for civil and criminal court personnel to deal with families with a history of violence. (Weisman)
The above stated resources and improvements would significantly increase the rates of reporting rape and abuse situations and provide Native women an outlet to access life-saving resources that were not given to them previously. These resources would address the startling statistics on the abuse of Native women.
The rate of Native women suffering domestic and sexual abuse has reached epidemic levels. Indigenous women are among the most abused populations and as stated above previously, statistically three out of every five Native women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime (Bendery). This alarming statistic directly stems from the years of abuse that indigenous communities have faced. As Sarah Deer stated “[R]ape is the fundamental result of colonialism, a history of violence reaching back centuries” (Taylor). Indigenous tribes across the nation need a way to continue their extended authority over non-native abusers, and increased awareness of the effects of abuse on their daily lives.
Among all populations in the United States, Native women are among the least studied demographic groups on the psychological and physical repercussions of violence and assault. It is evident that colonialism has allowed for years of neglect by the federal government and is an effective tool in successfully denying rights to healthcare and safety as citizens of the United States.
By having a lack of awareness on the effects of abuse and discrimination on Native women, there is a lack of belief among many government powers. Despite this belief, valuable work is being done to advocate for the rights of Native women. Dr. Karina Walters and Dr. Jane Simoni have detailed the “substantiated rates of child abuse or neglect of children, […] (and the correlation to increased rates) of psychological distress, global measures of distress, depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, poor physical health, and high blood pressure ” (522).
Overwhelming numbers of Native women growing up faced sexual abuse and due to the unfair U.S. law, were silenced and unable to get help or medical care. This perpetuates the high rates of mental and physical issues that will plague them the rest of their lives, in addition to the heartbreaking experience of their assault that they will have to relive on a daily basis. A step in the right direction would come in the form of federal recognition of tribal groups in order to allow advocacy for survivor rights and resources.
Improving tribal jurisdiction to prosecute non-native abusers has proven successful history shows. When VAWA was reauthorized in 2013, tribes were given the authority to abusers in cases of domestic violence and dating violence (Bendery). In a length of only six days, three tribes, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and the Tulalip Tribes, had charged 26 offenders (Bendery). By 2018, 18 tribes had reported 143 arrests with 128 different non-native abusers and 74 of these already convicted (“NCAI”).
Many tribes report that only a matter of funding prevents them from prosecuting more cases, another problem that continued federal funding can help solve. National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said that “the success of VAWA 2013 demonstrates that tribes can and will provide effective justice to their communities, and fair process to all those who appear in tribal courts” (“NCAI”). The reauthorization of VAWA in 2013 is a crucial stepping stone to providing protection for all Native women, regardless of age and tribe.
However, the 2013 VAWA statute only allows for tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians in instances of domestic violence, “dating violence”, or violations of protection orders that occur with in Native country. The current law prevents tribal jurisdiction from cases involving children, law enforcement personnel, and strangers of the victim (“NCAI”). This is just one glaring unresolved issue and how the unclear categorizing of abuse can have overwhelming consequences. As per the current law, A Native woman who is raped by a non-native man that she does not know, would not be given the authority to prosecute him effectively. While some politicians may not see the value in taking the necessary time to be specific, a simple assumption can have lifelong consequences for the victim who is already discouraged from reporting her abuse.
It is often said that silence is deafening for victims of assault. Many Native women don’t speak out about their attacks because of backlash from the government and superiors in their communities and workplaces. Caroline Atone’s story is a testament to this as she states that she was taught growing up that “the best way was to be silent and not to bring attention to yourself otherwise you would be hurt worse” when becoming a victim of sexual assault. This belief and distrust in government authorities is not new to Native communities.
Sarah Deer states that many Native women even distrust the legal and social authorities that could bring them the most help because of the past experiences of unjust treatment (Sharing Our Stories of Survival: Native Women Surviving Violence 45). In an effort to prevent reauthorization, many senators have found pathways to portray the act as unconstitutional or unjust. Many Republican senators and congress members have strongly opposed the act due to their skewed belief that the act would:
Allow more battered illegal immigrants to claim temporary visas, and include same-sex couples in programs for domestic violence […], diluting the focus of domestic violence by expanding protections to new groups (not originally covered under the act). (Weisman)
Disguising their disapproval under anti-immigration and anti-same sex initiatives is one of the primary ways that opposing interests are able to prevent the act from being reauthorized, effectively permitting the abuse of indigenous populations. This obstacle is one of many that VAWA and Native women face in addition to federal recognition.
Another substantial issue with VAWA is how the 2013 jurisdiction extension would only applies to tribes that are federally recognized. A tribe must go to extreme lengths to be federally recognized and an example of this difficulty is how a tribe must conduct treaties with the government to become recognized. Even if this requirement is met, the tribe could still be denied federal recognition. The burden of providing evidence that meets this requirement is left to fall on each and every Native tribe; any case of abuse of a Native woman on non-federally recognized tribal land would then have to rely upon state and federal laws.
Assuming VAWA is reauthorized, current state and federal law would become even more effective in protecting Native women but after examining it in its current state, tribal recognition guidelines are in desperate need of more practical and tolerant revision. The law currently would not serve and protect Native women if left unchanged.
The current state of the VAWA renewal places this protection of extended tribal jurisdiction at great risk. The VAWA law without the extension of tribal jurisdiction constructs a inequitable and unfair system for providing justice in Native communities. Without judicial extension, it will grant any felonious criminal that is on Native land permission to harm and endanger Native women.
The Indian Law Resource Center gives voice to these issues and goes onto highlight how this violates the human rights of Native women and maintains a growth of assault in Native communities. This also sheds light on the failure of the federal government’s responsibility to provide safety and justice to Indian Nations, including international human rights law like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (Indian Law Resource Center). One of the most elemental and vital human rights we have is to be safe from violence- it is recognized under international law.
In a perfect world, the Violence Against Women Act would be reauthorized and local, tribal, and federal authorities would take action in helping victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in a timely manner. Knowing the statistics on the abuse of Native women, it is evident that although power may be delegated to governments to take action in cases of abuse and assault, it is often overlooked or out of their reach.
Indigenous women’s’ advocate Sarah Deer experienced this phenomenon and states in her book, The Beginning and Ending of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America, that during her time working as a grant specialist for the federal government she observed many times when “federal and state officials who had an obligation to respond to crime in tribal communities simply ignored calls for help or put in little effort to follow through with investigations” (xii).
This disregard for victims safety allows perpetrators to roam free and endanger others. Deer also stated that many tribal police who would hope to arrest the suspects are unable to due to legal loopholes (The Beginning and Ending of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America xii). Without proper training and consequences for not reporting to cases is put into place, many Native women will continue to suffer. Although previous administrations have expressed remorse, no action has taken place to ensure change is made.
Many acts of minimization and meaningless apologies have been made by the federal government in order to try and make up for the violence against Native women. The 2000 Gover Apology and The 2009 Congressional Apology were both inept apologies but expressed sympathy. The structure of both apologies were not thought out, and shadowed a sense of urgency by federal officials to portray themselves as empathetic.
Sarah Deer goes into depth about these apologies and states that the apologies are purely symbolic; they admit to past wrongs but rarely point out how these acts of harm are continuing (45). The 2000 Gover Apology does not acknowledge the continuation of this violence right after apologizing. It goes to show how little the government acknowledges the abuse of Native women and their effect on allowing it to take place.
Reauthorizing VAWA 2013 would be symbolic victory for tribal nations across the country. Abeki Bec explains this and states:
Colonialism used sexual violence during war, land removal, and at boarding schools (to effectively abuse Native women) and in order to start to undo this multigenerational trauma, we need tribal and community-based prevention and justice. Which is why VAWA is so important; it strengthens tribes’ ability to protect their communities again. (Taylor)
Advocates for the bill urge people to remember that the statistics are not just numbers, but people with families and legitimate feelings. While it could use major improvements, having VAWA protect even one Indigenous woman is a tremendous success.
The Violence Against Women Act has made landmark strides in providing resources and protections to women across the United States, but what seems to be the most neglected of populations has yet to be included: Native American women. Through the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, indigenous nations would be able to prosecute and protect all women on Native land in the United States, and restore the respect and power one given to Native women.
The overwhelming disregard for Native women’s rights to safety and health services is a phenomenon that has continued for over a hundred years in the United States and continues to repeat itself. The federal government and its colonial views are entirely responsible for the continued attacks on Native women, the silencing of victims, and the increased rates of sexual assault on women. Holding the federal government responsible for the abuse they have caused is one of the first steps essential to change and sadly until then, young native girls and women will continue to suffer for their actions.
- Bendery, Jennifer. “At Last, Violence Against Women Act Lets Tribes Prosecute Non-Native Domestic Abusers.” The Huffington Post, 6 March 2015, www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/06/vawa-native-americans_n_6819526.html. Accessed 27 November 2018.
- Deer, Sarah, et al. Sharing Our Stories of Survival: Native Women Surviving Violence. Plymouth, AltaMira Press, 2008.
- Deer, Sarah. The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
- Ending Violence Against Native Women. Indian Law Resource Center. Retrieved from:indianlaw.org/issue/ending-violence-against-native-women.
- NBC Left Field. “Native American Women Speak Out About Sexual Assault And Violence.” YouTube, 12 January 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=E55Yr2msrAw.
- NCAI Releases Five-Year Report on Tribal Governments Exercising VAWA 2013 Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction Over Non-Indians. (2018, Mar 20). National Congress of American Indians. Retrieved from: www.ncai.org/news/articles/2018/03/20/ncai-releases-five-year-report-on-tribal-goVernments-exercising-vawa-2013-special-domestic-violence-criminal-jurisdiction-over-non-indians.
- Taylor, Rory. “The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Expires September 30, Leaving Indigenous Women Especially Vulnerable.” Teen Vogue. 20 September 2018, www.teenvogue.com/story/violence-against-women-act-vawa-expires-september- 30. Accessed 28 December 2018.
- Walters, Karina L., and Jane M. Simoni. “Reconceptualizing Native Women’s Health: An “Indigenist” Stress-Coping Model.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 92, no. 4, 2002, pp. 520-524.
- Weisman, Jonathan. “Women Figure Anew in Senate’s Latest Battle.” The New York Times, 14 March 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/us/politics/violence-against-women-act-divides-senate.html. Accessed 3 December 2018.