In the United States, women of indigenous descent face a particularly high rate of violence. In 2018, a report conducted by Indian Law Resource revealed that more than half of Indigenous women face some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes and that 4 in 5 have survived or experienced violence. In recent years, rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women have continued to rise. These statistics are far from new, in fact, studies show that Indigenous women have experienced sexual assault and physical abuse in their communities in the centuries that have marked our country’s post-colonial era. Still, even despite these numbers and the status of the Indigenous Peoples as U.S. citizens, the country’s indigenous population had no ability to pursue non-Indians for any type of crime up until 1994 when Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act.
Now, 24 years later, the expiration of the act signed in 1994 threatens to strip Native women of their rights to protect themselves from domestic and dating violence.
When Congress sanctioned the Violence Against Women Act again eight years ago, it marked a significant triumph for advocates.
The decision meant that for the first time in U.S. history, members of indigenous tribes could exercise their right to prosecute non-indigenous people who committed acts of domestic and sexual violence against. It proved to be a massive improvement on the thirty-five years that took place before it’s authorization in which indigenous communities in the U.S. did not have the ability to do so as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe which was made in 1978. The act’s new provisions did have its faults. It failed to apply to all offenders but it did give prosecutors an opportunity to pursue non-Indigenous residents of tribal land, spouses, and partners of tribal members and those employed by organizations within tribal nations.
Despite the alarming rates at which indigenous women experience violence, certainty on the Violence Against Women Act’s reauthorization remains up in the air.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that in 2017 indigenous women account for 633 cases of missing cases in the U.S. and that Native American and Alaska Natives made up 1.8 percent of missing person case being conducted by the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. Still, opposition from Congressional Republicans suggests the much-needed act could be under threat of its reauthorization date, which comes up this month on September 30th. In 2013, when re-signing of the bill was up for debate under the Obama administration, Republicans argued that the law could violate a person’s constitutional right to be tried by a jury of their peers. “Under the laws of our land, you’ve got to have a jury that is a reflection of society as a whole, and on an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right?” Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said at an Iowa townhall in 2013. “So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.” Fortunately, the act was passed and the revised law was signed in February of 2013.
What will happen to VAWA at the end of the month remains to be seen.
Democratic Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee has rallied for its reauthorization with a new bill that would increase protections for Indigenous victims of sex trafficking, sexual violence, and harassers. Even then, advocates have said that they have yet to see official pushes for the acts resigning.