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Indigenous communities celebrate reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act

Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee) attended signing with many Indigenous leaders from all over the country
Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee) attended signing with many Indigenous leaders from all over the country

Native communities are celebrating President Biden’s signing of an update to to the Violence Against Women Act.

Advocates for women and Indigenous people have waited nearly 10 years for the reauthorization of the act, which is commonly known as VAWA. The 2022 version extends new rights to tribal authorities.

Sarah Deer is a Muscogee Nation citizen and an expert of tribal law. She has advocated for Native women and pushed for changes.

"The 2022 authorization restores tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians for a series of crimes that Native people and tribal nations have been asking for since 1978," said Deer.

Specifically, this version of VAWA allows tribes to prosecute non-native people for sexual violence, child abuse, sex trafficking and assaults on tribal police officers. None of these authorities were included in previous versions. The act will be up for renewal again in five years.

The National Congress of American Indians also praised the reauthorization. In a statement released on Wednesday after the signing, President Fawn Sharp commended congress on the bipartisan effort to get it done.

“The historic tribal provisions in this bill attest to years of powerful, collaborative efforts between survivors, tribal leaders, and allies across Indian Country,” said Sharp.

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation attended Wednesday's signing along with a host of tribal leaders and advocates for the law's reauthorization.

"There was a time when Native Americans would not have had a presence in this kind of event," said Hoskin Jr. from the White House lawn in a video released by Cherokee Nation officials before attending.

The expanded criminal jurisdiction comes at a critical time for Cherokee Nation, who recently marked the one year anniversary of their reservation status being affirmed - effectively returning criminal jurisdiction to the tribal nation. Prosecuting non-Native perpetrators for crimes like domestic violence and sexual assault has been a hard fought battle for law enforcement in Indian Country.

These crimes were left up to the federal government to investigate and prosecute. Indigenous advocates complained that those types of crimes were a lower priority for federal officials and cases were not investigated or declined. Expanded jurisdiction is expected to close that gap.

"We know that across Indian country, particularly on domestic violence issues, effective prosecution was not the norm," said Hoskin Jr.

"The resources weren't there to effectively protect those victims and hold those lawbreakers accountable."

Hoskin Jr. said Cherokee Nation has prosecuted more than 100 cases of domestic violence. According to Cherokee Nation officials, calls to the tribal nation's violence prevention program ONE FIRE have increased to 25% since the McGirt decision applied to Cherokee Nation's 7,000 square miles.

In his speech at the signing of the bill, President Biden spoke about the cultural shift in attitudes around domestic violence. He said it was once referred to as a "family affair" and something that people didn't want to discuss publicly. Biden, who passed the law as a Senator from Delaware in 1994 said it took time to change the culture.

"The only way we can change the culture was by shining an ugly, bright light on it and speaking its name," said Biden.

While the new bill is being celebrated by tribal leaders and advocates, Senators compromised on a number of topics-including gun ownership.

In December, lawmakers introduced a framework for getting the bill passed which included closing the "boyfriend loophole." That provision would bar those convicted of domestic violence from owning a firearm. That was dropped in the new version of the bill. Joni Ernst, a Republican Senator from Iowa told Roll Call, a site that covers capitol hill and politics, that she supported the bill but without the loophole.

“I wanted to come to a solution that won't just be a political talking point for one side or the other, but a bill that can gain bipartisan support needed to pass the Senate and truly deliver for my fellow survivors of these life-altering abuses,” said Joni Ernst, a Republican Senator from Iowa who supported the bill.

The reauthorization was part of the $1.5 trillion omnibus bill that passed on Tuesday.

In addition to expanded criminal jurisdiction, the law strengthens other areas where domestic violence and sexual assault victims may experience gaps in the criminal justice system.

You can learn more about the bill here.

Since being passed in 1994, VAWA has been renewed three times: 2000, 2005 and 2013. You can watch President Biden's remarks about the bill here.

Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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