What the Signing of the Violence Against Women Act Means to Me

sarah deer

Sarah Deer (Mvskoke Nation and Member of Amnesty International USA’s Native American and Alaska Native Advisory Council), with Ruth Jewell (Penobscot nation and President BOD of National Coalition Against Domestic Violence), Representative Tom Cole (Republican champion of VAWA and member of the Chickasaw nation) and Rita Smith, Executive Director of National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

By Sarah Deer, Mvskoke Nation and Member of Amnesty International USA’s Native American and Alaska Native Advisory Council

I was 5 years old when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Oliphant v. Suquamish in 1978.  The decision stripped tribal governments of criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian and has left Native communities vulnerable to violent crimes committed by non-Indians in our territories.

When I first began learning about this case in earnest in law school years later, I was horrified. Why would the court rule that tribal nations lacked inherent authority to protect themselves? Over the years, many Indian law experts told me that it was unlikely that Congress would overturn the decision. Unfortunately, for many politicians, prejudice and ignorance have been the primary tools used to assess the legitimacy of tribal courts.


5 Reasons Congress Shouldn't Gut Violence Against Women Act

women protest violence against women

© STR/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Senate is poised to vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)– a key piece of legislation that, since 1994, aims to protect women in the U.S. from terrible acts of violence and exploitation.

But critical new protections in the bill – to protect Native American women, LGBT people and immigrant women in particular – are in danger of being left out. For example, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and others have indicated they may introduce an alternative bill that would strip out the amendments in VAWA that protect Native American and Alaska Native women.


New Report on Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota

“I thought prostitution was normal living.”

Last week the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and Prostitution Research & Education, an incredible team of Native American women researchers and activists, released a report on prostitution and trafficking of Native American women in Minnesota.

Garden of Truth is the first study detailing the personal experiences of Native women who have been prostituted and trafficked in Minnesota. The research team interviewed 105 women to assess the life circumstances that led them to prostitution.  The study found about half of the women met a conservative legal definition of sex trafficking which involves third-party control over the prostituting person by pimps or traffickers.


This is it – act NOW to pass the Tribal Law and Order Act

Two Native American women were gang-raped by three non-Native men in Oklahoma. Because they were forced to wear blindfolds, however, support workers were concerned that the women would be unable to say whether the rapes took place on federal, state or tribal land. Because of jurisdictional complexities and the uncertainty of the locations of these crimes, the women may never see justice served.

It is time to help make a difference in the lives of Native American and Alaska Native women and put an end to the sexual violence that Native women face at a rate that is 2.5 times greater than that of women in the U.S. in general. Passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act will help to do just that.

The Tribal Law and Order Act, attached as an amendment to H.R. 725, is now up for a full floor vote in the House. WHEN it passes, the legislation will go straight to the President to be signed into law.

YOU can make a difference!

TAKE ACTION now and send a letter of support urging your Representative to vote for H.R. 725 with Tribal Law and Order provisions attached, when the bill hits the House floor this week!

Victory! Tribal Law and Order Act Passes in the US Senate!

HUGE VICTORY for human rights happened this past Wednesday when the Senate passed H.R. 725, the Indian Arts and Crafts Amendment Act of 2010, which included the majority of the provisions in the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009!

The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009 is a historic, bi-partisan effort to tackle the complex jurisdictional maze that allows violent crime against Indigenous women, and in particular, sexual assault and violence against Native American and Alaska Native women, to go unpunished and unabated.

Championed by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) in the Senate and Representative Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD) in the House, the Tribal Law and Order Act represents an important step forward in combating violence against Native American women.  Violence that is an ongoing violation of Native American and Alaska Native women’s most fundamental human rights and freedoms.

Amnesty International detailed this violence in our 2007 report entitled Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA.  The report revealed shocking statistics of violence such as the fact that Native American and Alaska Native women are more than two and a half times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the United States in general.  The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009 is in direct response to concerns raised by tribal leaders, tribal organizations, Native American and Alaska Native women and the AIUSA report, which helped bring widespread attention to the high rates of crimes on tribal lands and the obstacles that victims face in securing justice.

The Act will help abate the violence in Indigenous communities by clarifying the responsibilities of, and increasing coordination and communication among, federal, state, and tribal governments with respect to crimes committed in tribal communities.  The bill also provides assistance to tribal governments by arming them with the necessary authority, resources, and information to address crimes committed on tribal land.  In addition, it helps shed light on the elevated levels of violence in Indian Country by increasing the standardized collection and distribution of criminal data among all levels of government responsible for responding to and investigating crimes in tribal communities, including the data necessary to establish whether or not crimes are being prosecuted.


UN sends a strong message to U.S. about the state of its indigenous people

The United Nation’s first report on The State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, released on January 14, 2010, contains figures and an assessment that are both shocking and illuminating, even to those who are familiar with indigenous rights issues. The report evaluates the state of indigenous populations in specific countries and situations, in both the developed and developing world.

The report states that,

“Indigenous peoples suffer from the consequences of historic injustice, including colonization, dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, oppression and discrimination, as well as lack of control over their own ways of life. Their right to development has been largely denied by colonial and modern States in the pursuit of economic growth”

The United States is by no means exempt from the report’s critique. Despite increased state and federal acknowledgment of the challenges that Native Americans and Alaska Natives face in the U.S., the U.S. has made only incremental change and continues to generate appalling statistics and significant disparities. A recent study that applied the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI) – which measures health, education and standard of living — to indigenous populations in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand found that while the U.S. ranked seventh overall (globally), U.S. American Indians and Alaska Natives ranked thirtieth.

The State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples notes that nearly a quarter of Native Americans and Alaska Natives live below the poverty line in the U.S., compared to about 12.5 percent of the total population, and pinpoints the direct relationship that the educational deficit has upon economic opportunities and employment rates.


Congress Moves on the 2009 Tribal Law and Order Act

On Thursday, December 10th, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing to discuss the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009, for which AIUSA was invited to submit written testimony. The bill, a close approximation of the early Senate draft of the bill, would make crucial and desperately needed reforms in tribal justice systems, helping to address the epidemic of sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women and girls.

Over the last few years, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) has worked to document the disconcerting realities of law enforcement in Indian Country, especially as they impact the capacity and ability to prevent and respond to sexual violence against women and girls. Our research found that Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the United States in general. In recent months, as both the House and Senate have made headway in pushing their respective bills through committee, it seems that Congressional leaders are finally realizing the true urgency of reforming tribal law enforcement.

Both bills would make crucial steps in ensuring justice in Indian Country. These bills mandate and create structures for improving communication, transparency, and data sharing between tribal, state, and Federal agencies, increase tribal prosecutorial authorities, expand and emphasize the importance of data collection and analysis, and call for the US Attorney General’s Office to document cases it refuses to prosecute. The bills also require training for law enforcement personnel on how to respond to domestic and sexual violent crimes and require Indian Health Services to improve services for victims of sexual assault.


The Latest from Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

Today I was out around different areas of the Reservation visiting various Aunties and other women elders who participated in the Maze of Injustice report research almost three years ago now. I’m disappointed because we are not able to visit everyone. There is so much flooding and flooding warnings as a result of 12 foot high snow drifts that some areas of the Reservation are inaccessible. The whole Tribal Nation of Standing Rock has been identified as a disaster zone. Many officers from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have been visiting throughout the week and going on tours of flood damage with various members of Tribal Council–it has been an unfortunate distraction to the Maze of Injustice work this week.

Here are some pictures of the high water levels and the remains of areas where flood waters have left behind terrible destruction and debris.

Flooding that has taken over an entire field of farmland on Standing Rock

Flooding that has taken over an entire field of farmland on Standing Rock

The impacts of the flooding have destroyed bridges, washed out roads, and left farmers with little to work with for Spring and Summer planting.

The impacts of the flooding have destroyed bridges, washed out roads, and left farmers with little to work with for Spring and Summer planting.

As you can tell from these pictures, Standing Rock is a very rural Reservation with little access to regular amenities you find in big cities–including fast food, department stores, and even health care! Some women have to travel eight hours in either direction to get to the nearest Indian Health Service (IHS) facility. Even then, the facility isn’t always able to perform an examination because there aren’t enough trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner’s (SANE’s). Often women are transported to other facilities off the Reservation, forcing them to find and pay for their own way back home.  The lack of adequate access to health care facilities continues to be a road block to justice for the women of Standing Rock. One can only imagine the number of women who will not be able to get to health facilities to be examined as a result of this flooding.

Fortunately, the winding road to Pretty Bird Woman House is still open, so I’ll be traveling there next to check in with shelter staff! Stay tuned….

Stopping Violence against Women in Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

Welcome to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation--a sign on one of the border points that indicates you're now on tribal land in North Dakota.

Welcome to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. This is a sign on one of the border points that indicates you are entering tribal land in North Dakota.

That sign says it all.  As you cross this bridge entering tribal land and tribal jurisdiction, this is the only indication you’ll have.  While it may seem insignificant to the regular driver cruising U.S. highway 1806, this sign along with many other border points along the Reservation is where the maze of injustice begins for the women of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

For the last three years, I’ve been the Amnesty International organizer working in this community in partnership with local Native women to accomplish our Maze of Injustice report goals.  As I travel around the Reservation over the next week having meetings and participating in traditional ceremonies, I hope to provide you with a glimpse into the everyday lives of the many survivors, local advocates and tribal leaders who have been instrumental in beginning to stop this cycle of violence against women living here.

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was one of three Reservations that were examined in the 2006 Amnesty International report “Maze of Injustice: the Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA.” According to the report, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to raped or sexually assaulted than any other woman in the USA. Of the women of Standing Rock that I’ve worked with, I haven’t met one who could think of a woman in their community who hadn’t experienced this violence. This is a direct result of a tangled mess of jurisdictional issues, insufficient levels of law enforcement, lack of protocols for handling cases of sexual assault and domestic violence and very few trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) available to perform rape kits at the local Indian Health Services hospitals.

While we’ve had many successes here over the last few years, we still have a long way to go.  The largest local success being the establishment of the only operational safe house called Pretty Bird Woman House. This is the only shelter serving an area of over one million square miles in either direction located in McLaughlin, SD.  In the last year alone, this shelter has seen over 100 women walk through the doors to receive necessary support, counseling and legal advocacy in an effort to bring their perpetrators to justice.

With that, I invite you to stay tuned over the next few days for your very own first eye view of the amazing and courageous women of Standing Rock Reservation. Women, that everyday are faced with the unknown fear of when this will happen to them.

One in Three

Native American and Alaska Native women face a 1 in 3 chance of being raped in their lifetime. The numbers are shocking. In our report, Maze of Injustice, Amnesty uncovered the staggering statistic that Native American and Alaska Native women are more than two and a half times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the USA in general. This has to change!

Non-Native men who rape Native American and Alaska Native women can often do so with impunity, because of a lack of tribal authority to prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes of sexual violence on tribal lands. Most perpetrators are never punished because of a complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions that is so confusing that officials are often not clear on who is responsible for responding.

Thankfully, the Senate is considering re-introducing the Tribal Law and Order Act, a bill that would help fix this broken system of justice.

In honor of International Women’s Day, which was this past Sunday, AIUSA is holding a call-in week for people to let their senators know that they want them to support initiatives that will help stop violence against women and to urge them to cosponsor the Tribal Law and Order Act after it has been re-introduced. Please try to call today (Thursday) or tomorrow (Friday), but if you can’t, then please call early next week.