Native Women Have Waited Too Long for Justice

Courtesy photo
WASHINGTON –In a speech on the Senate floor, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. Thursday urged the Senate to pass the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with tribal provisions to protect Native American women from domestic abuse.
To watch Udall’s speech, click here.
Since VAWA’s passage, domestic violence has decreased by over 50 percent. Yet, one in three Native women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and Native women are victims of domestic violence at a disproportionately higher rate.
The VAWA provisions would help tribal courts prosecute domestic violence and provide resources to address violence on tribal lands.
Below are Udall’s remarks as prepared for delivery:
Mr. President,
I rise today to express my support for the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. It’s important that we’re doing this early in the 113th Congress. And unfortunate that we have to have this debate again. The Senate passed a nearly identical bill last April. A bill with strong bipartisan support. But the House failed to bring it up for a vote, allowing the law to expire at the end of last year.
Many House Republicans opposed the Senate bill because it expanded VAWA’s protections to three groups – gays and lesbians, Native Americans, and undocumented immigrants. I support all three of these expansions, and today I want to again stress how crucial this measure is for Native American women.
For the past 19 years, the Violence Against Women Act helped protect women. From domestic violence. From sexual assault. And from stalking. This historic legislation has strengthened the prosecution of these crimes, and it has provided critical support to the victims.
VAWA has long been bipartisan with broad support. Democrats, Republicans, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, health professionals, all have supported this legislation. Why? Because it worked.
Since VAWA’s passage in 1994, domestic violence has decreased by over 50 percent. And the victims of these crimes have been more willing to come forward. Knowing that they are not alone. Knowing that they will get the support they need. Knowing that crimes against women will not be tolerated.
Mr. President, unfortunately, not all women have received the full benefits of the Violence Against Women Act. That is why the tribal provisions now are so important. Native American women are two and a half times more likely than other U.S. women to be victims of rape. One in three will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. And it is estimated that three out of every five Native women will experience domestic violence.
Those numbers are tragic. Those numbers tell a story of great human suffering. Of women in desperate situations. Desperate for support. And too often we have failed to provide that support.
The frequency of violence against Native women is only part of the tragedy. Too often, these crimes go unprosecuted and unpunished. Not only is violence inflicted, but justice is denied.
Here’s the problem. Tribal governments are unable to prosecute non-Indians for domestic violence crimes. They have no authority over these crimes against Native American spouses or partners within their own tribal lands. Instead, under existing law, these crimes fall exclusively under federal jurisdiction. But federal prosecutors have limited resources. They may be located hours away from tribal communities. Non-Indian perpetrators often go unpunished. And yet over 50 percent of Native women are married to non-Indians. 76 percent of the overall population living on tribal lands are non-Indians.
The result is an escalating cycle of violence. On some tribal lands, the homicide rate for Native women is up to 10 times the national average. Ten times the national average. But this starts with small crimes. Small acts of violence that may not rise to the attention of a federal prosecutor. In 2006 and 2007, U.S. Attorneys prosecuted only 45 misdemeanor crimes on tribal lands. For perspective, the Salt River Reservation in Arizona – which is relatively small – reported more than 450 domestic violence cases in 2006 alone.
Those numbers are appalling.
Mr. President, native women should not be abandoned to a jurisdictional loophole. In effect, these women are living in a prosecution-free zone. The tribal provisions in VAWA will provide a remedy. The bill allows tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians in a narrow set of cases that meet the following specific conditions:
The crime must have occurred in Indian country;
The crime must be either a domestic violence or dating violence offense, or a violation of a protection order; and
The non-Indian defendant must reside in Indian country, be employed in Indian country, or be the spouse or intimate partner of a member of the prosecuting tribe.
This bill does not extend tribal jurisdiction to general crimes of violence by non-Indians. It does not apply to crimes between two non-Indians, or crimes between persons with no ties to the tribe. If they don’t have any ties to the tribe it doesn’t apply. Nothing in this provision diminishes or alters the jurisdiction of any federal or state court.
I know some of my colleagues question if a tribal court can provide the same protections to defendants that are guaranteed in a federal or state court. The bill addresses this concern. It provides comprehensive protections to all criminal defendants who are prosecuted in tribal courts, whether or not the defendant is a Native American. Defendants would essentially have the same rights in tribal court as in state court.
These include, among many others, the rights to counsel, to a speedy trial, and to due process. The rights against unreasonable search and seizures, double jeopardy, and self-incrimination. A tribe that does not provide these protections cannot prosecute non-Indians under this provision.
Mr. President, some have also questioned whether Congress has the authority to expand tribal criminal jurisdiction to cover non-Indians. This issue was carefully considered in drafting the tribal jurisdiction provision. The Indian Affairs and Judiciary Committees worked closely with the Department of Justice to ensure that the legislation is constitutional.
As a former federal prosecutor and Attorney General of a state with a large Native American population, I know how difficult the legal maze can be for Tribal Communities. And one result of this maze is unchecked crime. In situations where personnel and funding run thin, and distances are long, violence often goes unpunished.
This legislation will create a local solution for a local problem. Tribes have proven their effectiveness in combating domestic violence committed by Native Americans. But let me reiterate this very important point – without an act of Congress, tribes cannot prosecute a non-Indian — even if he lives on the reservation, even if he is married to a tribal member — ithout this act of Congress, tribes will continue to lack authority.
This bill will also promote other important efforts to protect Native women from an epidemic of domestic violence. With increasing grants for tribal programs to address violence, with support for research on violence against Native women, and also by allowing federal prosecutors to seek tougher sentences for perpetrators who strangle or suffocate their spouses or partners.
All of these provisions are about justice. Right now, Native women don’t get the justice they deserve. But these are strong women. They, rightly, demand to be heard. They have identified a desperate need and logical solutions. That is why Native women and tribal leaders across the nation support the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act and the proposed tribal provisions.
There are many—far too many—stories of violence against Native women and of the failure to protect them. Stories that should outrage us all and that could end through local intervention. Local authority that will only be made possible through an act of Congress. We have the opportunity to support such an act in the tribal provisions of VAWA. With this bill we can close a dark and desperate loophole in criminal jurisdiction.
Native women have waited too long already for justice. They should not have to wait any longer.
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