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Commentary: Violence Against Women Act important

Winona LaDuke

"A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground." - Cheyenne proverb

Recent debate on the Violence Against Women Act marks what may be a very important stage in improving relations between tribal governments, state and federal governments and the protection of women.

The law has been up for re-authorization for five years, and has a few sticking points, mostly around the protection of Native and immigrant women, and gay and lesbian people.

Republicans, until last week, had proposed amendments to strip Native American rights and jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of violence on the reservation. In what appears to be a change of heart, last week's passage of US SB47 with tribal jurisdiction intact, was a step in recognizing that as Sen. Patrick Leahy said in debates, "A victim is a victim is a victim."

This is important because 34 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes; 39 percent will be subjected to domestic violence in their lifetimes; 67 percent of Native women victims of rape and sexual assault report their assailants as non-Native individuals and, on some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average.

This set of facts is paired with unfortunately high declination rates. U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute nearly 52 percent of violent crimes that occur in Indian country; and 67 percent of cases declined were sexual abuse related cases. This means, in the end, that Native women have been, in the words of Sen. Maria Cantwell, "treated as second-class citizens under the law."

I asked Lisa Brunner, executive director of Sacred Spirits, a national tribal organization working on the issues, her thoughts.

"Some of the concern stems from a lack of understanding of tribal jurisdiction," Brunner said. "The answer is to fund the tribal justice system. As well, there are safeguards built into the provision which ensure that all rights guaranteed under the Constitution are given to non-Native defendants in tribal court."

The National Congress of American Indians explained the situation in a letter to Congress, "The special domestic violence jurisdiction is narrowly restricted to apply only to instances of domestic or dating violence where: 1) the victim is an Indian, 2) the conduct occurs on tribal lands; and 3) where the defendant either lives or works on the reservation, i.e., where the defendant has significant ties to the community."

The NCAI also pointed out that Indian tribes are a political body - not a racial class - so the question is not whether non-Indians are subject to Indian court. The question is whether tribal governments, political entities, have the necessary jurisdiction to provide their citizens with the public safety protections every government has the inherent duty to provide.

Indeed, placing more funding in the hands of state or federal authorities to administer this process, concerns tribes deeply as there has been little, to no action on most of these cases, with 62 percent of the cases being declined for prosecution.

The answer, as in many conflicts, may be education and effort. In this case, it's a combined effort to support justice in the law, and the infrastructure for justice in Native America.

It may also be time to understand what a justice system looks like that is multijurisdictional. Native people are subjected to both tribal and nontribal law, and unfortunately, make up a disproportionate segment of North Dakota's prison population. That's a different issue, but it does seem fair that non-Native people committing crimes in Indian territory should not be sheltered by a lack of jurisdiction or, in some cases, interest. We will see how the House of Representatives debate goes.

As Cantwell testified, "The notion that this is somehow abrogating individual rights just because the crime takes place on a tribal reservation is incorrect. So I ask my colleagues, do you want to continue to have this unbelievable growth and petri dish of crime evolving? Because criminals know; when you have a porous border that is where they are going to go."

LaDuke is an American Indian activist, environmentalist, economist and writer. She is executive director or the White Earth Land Recovery Project on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.