As violence against women dominates discussions among Aboriginal and human rights groups in Canada, south of the border the long-sought Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed by the U.S. Senate on Feb. 12.
Bipartisan support for the bill led to 78 senators voting in favour of the bill, which includes controversial provisions to extend tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians on reservation lands. Twenty-two senators–all Republican men–voted against the bill, which sets aside $659 million over five years for anti-violence programs.
As the legislation moved to Congress for approval, some groups expressed outrage that violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people was dropped from the package.
“On one hand, we’re optimistic for a good result,” John Dossett, a lawyer for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), told Windspeaker. “But we’re working very hard to make it happen. It’s a lot of work.”
The president of the NCAI, which is roughly equivalent to the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, celebrated the senate success of VAWA, including its tribal provisions.
“Today’s passage of the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate, and previous votes to defeat harmful amendments to the bill, sends a clear message to the House that a strong VAWA bill with the tribal provisions must be passed immediately,” said Jefferson Keel in a statement. “There is no reason for further delay.
“This is violence that cuts deep into the hearts of our community. Addressing violence against any women, including Native women, is a priority of all Americans, and the safety of both Native and non-Native communities should not be marginalized.”
Dossett explained that in the U.S., tribal governments operate their own court, justice, jail and police systems, seen as part of “inherent tribal self-government.” But despite that, their jurisdiction only extends to Native American citizens, not to non-Natives, even if crimes are committed on tribal soil.
“The proposal is to extend that to non-Indians, for specific crimes, such as domestic violent crimes involving non-Indian descendants,” Dossett said. “It’s a very important area, because non-Indians who commit these crimes can only be prosecuted by the federal government.
“The tribes have always resented the idea that, if a person commits a crime on a reservation, they don’t have jurisdiction over that person... It harms public safety; it’s been a problem for a long time. The dynamic they’re trying to address is that, with first-time offences, there is often no intervention until the violence escalates to very severe assaults or death. If there is domestic violence, there should be intervention early on, at a local level.”
For Andrea Smith–author of “Conquest: Sexual Violence and Native American Genocide” and a professor at University of California Riverside–VAWA is by no means a perfect legislation. In particular, she raised concern with increasing law enforcement and incarceration, when those too often disproportionately target minorities. But many of the bill’s provisions are seen as steps forward.
“The thing with VAWA is, it’s a very limited thing,” Smith told Windspeaker. “It’s not the be-all and end-all.
“From the positive side, some of the tribal provisions put control back into the tribes... Native nations can start to manage themselves. You could see that as a baby step in a good direction.”
Smith said that violence against aboriginal women has its roots in colonialism, a problem that will require much more to address than government legislation, but rather a sustained grassroots effort.
“One of the things that gets lost in all this is that gendered violence is a colonial legacy,” she said. “In many communities, prior to colonization, there wasn’t gendered violence because most of the nations weren’t patriarchal. They weren’t even necessarily very socially hierarchal, in fact. Many children were taken from their homes, forced to be Christian, and learned patriarchal [ways].”
Community accountability processes, Smith said, are one way towards ending violence against women.
Upon VAWA’s Senate passage, Attorney General Eric Holder urged the House to pass it into law.
“Notably, the tribal provisions included in the VAWA reauthorization and originally proposed by the Department of Justice, will close a significant jurisdictional gap that has left too many Native American women, precisely because they are Native American, exposed to violence for far too long,” Holder said.
The bill, in fact, was originally enacted by former President Bill Clinton in 1994, but had languished for decades as a result of partisan bickering. But with Native women 10 times more likely to be murdered than non-Natives, and 2.5 times more likely to face domestic violence than others, the sense of urgency has only increased in 19 years.