AS the Violence Against Women Act comes to a potential vote in the Senate this week, women across the nation have been left to ponder their worth and to what extent the U.S. government cares to protect them from violence, especially Native American women. For Native Americans, the Violence Against Women Act has struck a chord that tugs on the heartstrings of sovereignty.
Native American women suffer some of the highest rates of violent crimes. At least 70 percent of Native American female victims were victimized by non-Native American perpetrators, according to a 1999 Department of Justice report. This problem is complicated by jurisdictional constraints over crimes committed by non-Native Americans on tribal lands because tribes do not have jurisdiction to prosecute their crimes.
Rather, jurisdiction is vested in federal authorities and agencies often hundreds of miles away from the reservations and the communities they are charged to protect, leaving tribes defenseless to protect their own Native American women. The only appropriate response to the severity of violence against Native American women is for Congress to pass a Violence Against Women Act that protects them.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has been audaciously pivotal in writing an act that strengthens protections for the nation’s most vulnerable populations. She has recognized and invited Native American women leaders to the chambers of Congress, embracing her congressional responsibility to not only the 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington state, but to all tribes across the nation.
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The Senate is voting on a version of the Violence Against Women Act that extends limited jurisdiction to tribes over domestic violence crimes committed on Native American lands by non-Native Americans. Last year, the House passed its own version, eliminating the Native American provisions. The controversy for the House lies in whether the Native American provisions are constitutional.
U.S. representatives who oppose the act are ignoring another constitutional matter. The United States government has a unique government-to-government relationship with Native American tribes as sovereign nations and a trust responsibility to Native American people. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the power to regulate commerce with Native American tribes. While tribes retain sovereign power, Congress has assumed the responsibility for the protection and preservation of Native American people.
Congressional efforts such as the Major Crimes Act, Indian Country Crimes Act and the Tribal Law and Order Act are all evidence that the U.S. government is cognizant of the concern for public safety on Native American lands. However, despite congressional efforts, Native American tribes remain powerless to protect Native American women who fall prey to violence due to tangled federal laws and policies.
Congress has a vested responsibility to respond to the heinous degree of victimizations against Native American women. Congress has the power to pass laws that govern Native American tribes and their members and, therefore, the power to further protect Native American women from violence lies wholly in Congress.
The Violence Against Women Act reauthorization brings to light the sovereignty of Native American tribes. Reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act with provisions for tribal court jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who commit domestic violence crimes on Native American lands would uphold, honor and respect tribes as sovereign nations.
At the heart of sovereignty is the responsibility of government to protect its citizens. A Violence Against Women Act with Native American provisions intact rightfully extends those protective measures.
Despite efforts to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the Violence Against Women Act in 2012, the House GOP has held a flagrantly negligent, uncompromising stance on its version of the bill. Members refused to reauthorize it by the end of the term — a first since the law passed with bipartisan support in 1994.
The U.S. government has distinct legal, treaty and trust obligations to provide for the public safety of tribal communities. Passing a Violence Against Women Act that protects Native American women is more than a piece of legislation, it’s a fiduciary responsibility.
Katrice Romero is a member of the Nooksack Indian Tribe in Washington state. She is studying for a master’s degree in social work at the University of Southern California.