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Revictimizing Native women for political purposes

The Tulalip Tribes' Deborah Parker (in hat) at a D.C. rally in support of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization passed by the U.S. Senate. Credit: National Congress of American Indians/Flickr

Early this week, two U.S. House Representatives members and the Tacoma News Tribune took clear stands against protecting women from sexual assault.  Representatives Todd Akin, R-Missouri, and Steve King, R-Iowa, did so by promoting the concept of “legitimate rape.”  The News Tribune did so by attacking the only real hope for combating the national pandemic of violence against Native women.

As originally passed by the U.S. Senate, the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization legislation would allow tribes to exercise limited criminal jurisdiction over certain non-Indians who violate Native American women on Indian reservations. Tribes would be required to provide all rights accorded to defendants in state and federal court, and federal courts would have authority to review tribal court decisions that result in incarceration. The legislation would not raise the one-year maximum sentence that tribal courts can impose. The GOP-controlled House, however, omitted the protections for Indian women in its version of the bill.

Among those voting to omit the tribal protections were vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, U.S. Senate candidate Akin, and House Republican King. In an interview originally broadcast on Sunday, Akin suggested that an abortion would be unnecessary in the instance of a “legitimate rape” because apparently only non-legitimate rape leads to pregnancy — whatever that means. Chiming in agreement, fellow House Rep. King said that he’s never heard of a girl getting pregnant from statutory rape or incest. While Akin and King quickly recanted, they cannot as simply withdraw their votes against the Senate’s proposed protections for abused Native women. 

Also Monday, The News Tribune (editorial, "Protect Indian women without diluting Bill of Rights") accused tribal governments of having “an agenda of their own: They see the domestic violence issue as a way to assert and reclaim broader sovereign powers.” The editorial is wrong. Indian Country sees the the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization as a way to protect Indian women from being violently assaulted.

The paper got one thing right, however. It did describe “an intolerable gap of justice” caused by the fact that tribes cannot assert jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators of violence and that federal and state governments are too busy to do so. This is the result of a 1978 the U.S. Supreme Court decision — a case that arose on Washington state’s own Kitsap Peninsula — which held that that tribal governments cannot criminally prosecute non-Indians. What has since resulted from Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe is a jurisdictional gap where non-Indians can enter Indian reservations and literally get away with murder — or, more commonly, rape. Indeed, sex offenders are now using Indian reservations as safe havens to commit sex crimes against Indian women. Consider these statistics:

  • Native women suffer violent crime at the highest rates in the country.
  • On many reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average.
  • Violent crime rates in Indian Country are more than 2.5 times the national rate; some reservations face a rate 20 times higher.

The federal government has jurisdiction to convict these offenders, but it fails to do so. On some reservations, as few as three federal officers are responsible for patrolling millions of acres of land. These officers are typically located a substantial distance from tribal communities and are generally unaware of the exigency of many of the reported incidents of domestic violence. According to a 2006 Amnesty International study, it is not uncommon for Native victims of assault to “have to wait hours or days to receive a response from police and, in many situations, [victims] receive no response at all.” In the Navajo Nation, for example, 329 rape cases were reported in 2007 — five years later, there have been only 17 arrests.

Here in Washington, an antiquated federal law has granted local police officers the power to enforce the state’s law upon non-Indians within Indian Country. But the result is the same. The surrounding and generally larger non-Indian community does not provide policing to adequate levels. For decades, despite much outrage by tribal victims of domestic violence — victims such as Tulalip Tribes Vice Chair Deborah Parker — complaints have fallen on deaf ears. The most recent study to assess the issue has concluded that state criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country has actually caused an increase in crime.

Under the Senate’s VAWA reauthorization, tribes would again be able to exercise limited criminal jurisdiction vis-à-vis their own justice systems, which, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office study, are “the most appropriate institutions for maintaining law and order in Indian country.” In particular, tribal police, the first responders to crimes on reservations, would finally be able to protect Native women from non-Native men.

Earlier this summer, however, House Republicans removed the tribal protections, with an admonishment of the tribes for “tout[ing] unverifiable statistics about the rate of non-Indian violence against Indian women on Indian land.” Republicans attacked the Department of Justice’s estimate that 88 percent of assaults against Indian women are committed by non-Indians; and instead suggested the number was only 31 percent.  In short, according to House Republicans, the incidence of violence against Native women isn’t that bad. 

But, who cares if it is 88 percent or 31 percent of sexual predators who are allowed to violate Native women and get away scot-free? It's absolutely deplorable for House Republicans to take the position that rape and violence against Indian women is tolerable up to some point between the those two numbers. Were this the situation in any other part of the United States, affecting any other racial group, Congress would simply not allow such an atrocity to continue.

President Obama’s words ring true in the partisan VAWA debate: “Rape is rape. And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about doesn’t make sense.” The White House says that the president will veto any VAWA reauthorization that does not include the tribal protections. Sen. Patty Murray has also vowed to reject any proposed agreement with the House that does not include them. 

Meanwhile, Washington Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rob McKenna advocates for mere “tribal civil authority” over non-Indian sex offenders in Indian Country. While McKenna is at least addressing the issue with some thought, which is much more than can be said of other GOP candidates this summer, fines and civil restraining orders are not enough to combat reservation murder, rape, and domestic violence. On the other hand, as a member of Congress, his opponent Jay Inslee, introduced the Stand Against Violence and Empower Native Women Act in the House, a bill that tracks the Senate VAWA reauthorization almost word-for-word.

The jurisdictional gap created by our High Court nearly 35 years ago has created an extremely dangerous environment for Native women.  It is only now that a solution to the sexual assault pandemic in Indian Country has begun to emerge. But if the House Republicans’ misogyny and racism prevails, the solution will fall through the political cracks. Meanwhile, Native women remain vulnerable to violent criminals who remain above the law.

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