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Solutions: Federal Policy

Native American advocates urge reauthorization, expansion of Violence Against Women Act as delays halt action on the critical measure and efforts mount to include protections for missing and murdered Indigenous women

During the 31st annual Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, Native American advocates and survivors mounted a campaign to raise public awareness surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women, and called on lawmakers for a meaningful reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that includes provisions to protect Indigenous women and girls.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to strengthen penalties for perpetrators and fund victim services. Reauthorized in 2013, it was set to expire Sept. 30 but was extended through Dec. 7 under a stopgap-spending bill signed by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Advocates of its reauthorization and expansion are calling for swift passage of the measure.

In 2013, VAWA was expanded so that Indigenous communities would have an inherent right to exercise criminal jurisdiction over certain non-Native Americans who committed domestic or dating violence against Native American victims on tribal land. While these provisions didn’t cover all offenders, they did allow for the prosecution of non-Native Americans who resided on the tribal land, were employed by a participating tribal nation, or were “a spouse, intimate partner, or dating partner of a tribal member.”

Called the Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction (SDVCJ) statute under the 2013 VAWA, advocates of its reauthorization say it can make all the difference for Indigenous women.

According to the Department of Justice, more than four in five Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetimes, over half of them committed by an intimate partner.

This is one of several stories in the Flathead Beacon’s “Disappeared” project. View all of the stories at www.MontanaMMIW.com.

Lucy Simpson, executive director for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, said she was disheartened that Congress failed to act on the measure.

“We, along with our allies in the field, are disappointed that rather than engaging in a process to reauthorize a meaningful VAWA, Congress instead chose to push this process down the road by merely passing a continuing resolution to extend the existing VAWA through December 7, 2018,” Simpson said. “Tribal leaders and advocates have been calling attention to gaps in the VAWA 2013 special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction provisions. We remain committed to the position that it is only through restored tribal sovereignty that we will be able to enhance the safety of American Indians and Alaska Natives. We will rise to meet the challenge of substantive policy changes that recognize the inherent sovereignty of all of our tribal nations.”

A new version of the bill, introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, seeks to further expand tribal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans, and builds on the 2013 version of VAWA by recognizing the “inherent” authority of tribes to arrest, prosecute and sentence non-Native Americans who abuse their partners.

“Eighty-four percent of Native American women living on reservations experience some form of sexual violence,” Lee said at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in July. “We must protect them.”

Lee’s bill, H.R. 6545, also seeks to address the growing crisis by requiring the federal government, for the first time, to provide annual reports on the known statistics of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It further directs the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Services and other agencies to work together and come up with standard protocols to investigate such cases.

Additionally, the bill includes a provision, labeled “Safety for Indian Women,” to improve tribal access to federal crime databases, an issue that arose after the 2013 law. A victim’s tribal citizenship or affiliation, for example, could be entered into the systems, a minor change that helps build the case for additional funding and other resources.

According to a 2018 report by the National Congress of American Indians, 18 different Indigenous communities have employed the SDVCJ provision of VAWA, resulting in 143 arrests, of which six went to trial. Of those six trials, five resulted in acquittal, and none went on to be examined by the federal government.

Historically, VAWA has enjoyed bipartisan support, and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, recently pressed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to hold a hearing about missing and murdered Indigenous women. In September, Daines sent a letter to the committee chair and vice chair urging them to take up the issue.

“We must do all in our power to curb the crisis of American Indian and Alaska Native women, girls, and others who disappear and whose cases never see justice,” Daines wrote. “Holding a formal discussion in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs would be an important next step.”

Earlier this year, Daines introduced a resolution to designate May 5, 2018 as the “National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls.”

The resolution, cosponsored by a half-dozen other lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, seeks to honor the memory of Hanna Harris, a Lame Deer woman who was murdered in 2013 on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and seeks to commemorate other missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women in the United States. The Senate unanimously passed a similar resolution last year.

In late October, the U.S. Departments of Justice and the Interior announced the expansion of the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information (TAP) to an additional 25 tribes, including the Blackfeet Nation.

The program not only provides access to national criminal databases but also enables tribes to enter and track information about missing persons.

“We are pleased that the Blackfeet Nation has been selected for expansion of the Tribal Access Program,” Montana U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme said. “The program will allow the Blackfeet Tribal Police and other tribal departments to enter information about missing persons into the national missing persons database, enter updates about each person and learn of updates from law enforcement across the country.”

“This will be a big step toward ensuring that missing persons, particularly Blackfeet women and children, are found, and that the Tribe has the most up to date information about missing members,” Alme, who also is vice chair of the Attorney General’s Native American Issues Subcommittee, said.

Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Tim Davis also hailed the expansion of TAP as a step in the right direction.

“Having real-time access to the TAP program and criminal information readily available to tribal law enforcement agencies provides the assurance that our residents are better served and protected,” Davis said. “Indian communities who have sadly experienced so many injustices for so long are now being afforded justice on a more timely and effective scale.”

The Blackfeet tribe will be Montana’s second tribe to join the TAP program. The Fort Peck Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation, based in Poplar, currently participate in the program.

By the end of 2019, the Justice Department will expand the number of TAP participating tribes by more than 50 percent — from 47 tribes to 72 tribes.

TAP allows tribes to access to information in several national databases through the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Systems network, including the National Crime Information Center and other databases.

The program also provides tribes the ability to access and exchange data with national crime information databases for both criminal and civil purposes.

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series called “Disappeared,” a special project from the Flathead Beacon, done in collaboration with the Solutions Journalism Network, to highlight the issues around missing and murdered Indigenous women. Go to www.MontanaMMIW.com to read the entire series.