Protect The Sacred: Preserving & Improving VAWA 2013

One in three Native women will be raped in their lifetime, and three in five will be physically assaulted. Native women are more than twice as likely to be stalked than other women and, even worse, Native women are being murdered at a rate ten times the national average. Due to under-reporting, the actual numbers are almost certainly higher. While data on violence against Native girls is sorely lacking, a recent national survey found violence against Native girls may be disproportionately high as well.”

These facts are real. Actions need to be taken to protect our women and children. VAWA currently, is very limited with it’s protection.  But there are some amazing women, and men, that are champions of this issue.

So, what is VAWA 2013?

Enabling criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians became legal in March 2015 when Tribes across the country were allowed to implement VAWA 2013, as long as the following statutory requirements were met:

  • Victim must be Indian
  • Crime must take place in Indian Country of participating Tribe
  • Non-Indian defendant must have “sufficient ties to the Indian Tribe,” may include:
    • Residing in Indian Country of participating Tribe
    • Employed in Indian Country of participating Tribe
    • Spouse, intimate partner, dating partner of Tribal member, or an Indian who resides in Indian Country of participating Tribe

What’s happening?

Last Spring, just a reminder update, four U.S. House Representatives sponsored a Congressional briefing on the: Violence Against Women & Implementation of VAWA 2013 Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction (SDVCJ).  The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, the Indian Law Resource Center, and the National Congress of American Indians co-sponsored the event.  The co-hosts were, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (NY), Congresswoman Betty McCollum (MN), Congresswoman Gwen Moore (WI), and Congressmen Xavier Beccera (CA).


President Barack Obama signs S. 47, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, (VAWA), which reauthorizes several Violence Against Women Act grant programs through FY 2018; and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 through FY 2017, in the Sidney R. Yates Auditorium at the U.S. Department of Interior in Washington, D.C., March 7, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

“No one should have to live in fear of violence, especially in her home, and VAWA affirms that belief.”


The Violence Against Women Act of 2013 affirmed that Tribes have the ability to exercise Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction (SDVCJ). As of January 1, 2016, eight Tribes have implemented SDVCJ over non-Indians. This gives Tribes authority to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators of three classifications of crimes: domestic violence, dating violence, and violation of protection orders. Prior to VAWA, non-native/members could commit a domestic violence/dating violence crime on Tribal lands and not be held accountable for their actions due to jurisdictional constraints

Congressional Representatives have recognized the progress made since the initiation of VAWA 2013 and were in agreement that there is still a long way to go for the system to work as intended, be implemented across all Tribal Nations, and to improve the law in the appropriations process.  The development of best practices is also needed in this process.

Congresswoman Gwen Moore, a champion of VAWA, really stressed best practices on implementation, and the need to expand jurisdiction to include the protection of children.

Congressman Xavier Becerra noted that this was “great to apply across the board for women.” He mentioned that there is a lot of accomplish and revise in the law, but stated that “this is just the beginning.” While sitting there, it was great to hear a member of Congress talk about how crazy it is that Tribes are just getting recognized to implement and protect Native women.  It’s 2016 and Native women, have more so, restricted rights.  It’s 2016 and Tribes, Indigenous people across the world, are still fighting for basic human rights, while still standing ground against those who think we don’t matter.

In February 2014, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, as part of the Department of Justice Pilot Project, began exercising SDVCJ.  By September 2015, the Tribe has made 21 SDVCJ arrests and noticed that since implementation of SDVCJ, non-Indians make up roughly, 25% of the Tribe’s domestic violence cases.  Pascua Yaqui Chairman, Peter Yucupicio stated: “It is now clear that the law should be expanded to protect additional victims and Tribes across the Nations should be provided with the proper resources to implement the law.” While the creation and intentions of VAWA 2013 have been good, there are still flaws.  Yucupicio also stressed that “VAWA jurisdiction is still limited to certain crimes, does not protect victims of stranger rape, and does not protect children or other family members.”

The Tulalip Tribes began exercising SDVCJ in February 2014 as part of the DOJ Pilot Project.  Nearly two years later, Tulalip has made 11 SDVCJ arrests, 6 guilty pleas, 1 federal guilty plea, 2 dismissals and 2 pending. Chairman Melvin Sheldon, Jr. of the Tribe noted that “every life is important and every victim’s voice should be heard.” And that couldn’t be truer.  While the issue of rape, sexual and domestic assault on Native women is heartbreaking, it’s a huge issue for women in general, across the world.

Roughly forty Tribes are or have participated in the Inter-Tribal Working Group on SDVCJ and are in the process towards implementation, with about twenty Tribes ready to implement within the next year. Although to me, that is great news, but there are 567 federally recognized Tribes, and assault on Native women is happening everywhere, on and off the reservation.

In June 2016, Indian Law Resource Center took action to address violence on Indigenous women to the Commission on the Status of Women and the Human Rights Council at the United Nations. Also in 2016, the Department of Justice and National Institute of Justice Report release “Violence Against Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men 2010 Findings from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey” (You may have to be on the computer to view this report).

What’s Next?

Currently, significant progress has been made.  However, there are large gaps that are in need of bridging.  As with many other laws, VAWA is very vague with respect to protecting the full range of victims associated with these crimes.  An important need is the protection of the children involved in these crimes that the law doesn’t currently protect.  Four cases from the eight early adopting Tribes included children who were pulled from the home.  Congresswoman Gwen Moore (WI), champion of VAWA, stated how important it is to protect the children since the law doesn’t currently.  Meeting with Congressional members is essential to gain support for issues including: 1) a more defined language of the law; 2) jurisdiction expansion; 3) protection of more victims (including children); 4) required documentation of implementation (data collection/reporting); 5) clarification of what a “relationship” is since “dating” can mean a lot of things in today’s society and under this law, it hasn’t protected every “relationship” because it wasn’t exactly what it was intended to mean; 6) access to full appropriated funds; 7) access to Crimes Victim Fund (CVF); 8) support appropriations language to ensure Tribal victims are not left out under the Secure Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act (SURVIVAL Act).  Tribes need the additional and proper resources to be able to implement this law to meet the needs of their Tribal victims. Funding of SDVCJ authorized under VAWA 2013 is at $5 million, but Congress has only appropriated $2.5 million for FY 2016.

What are the requests to ensure productive implementation?

  • More defined statutes on protecting children
  • Expansion of jurisdiction to protect additional victims
  • Need reporting or data collection to be covered under the law, as of now, it doesn’t require it, which Congress is always demanding evidence and best practices
  • Broadened definition of “relationship.” As stated by Alfred Urbina (Pascua Yaqui Attorney General) and Oscar Flores (Pascua Yaqui Chief Prosecutor), the definition is old fashioned, outdated, and in today’s society, how do you define a relationship? It’s always changing and could mean a variety of things
  • Costs money to implement law: need access to money. (For Tulalip, they used their own Tribal revenue, while Congress authorized $25 million to implement the law through 2018, they have yet to appropriate the funds)
  • Crime Victims Fund (CVF): Indian Country is left out from programs that are funded through CVF. Supporting legislation or appropriation language that would allocate money to Tribal Nations.
  • Urging Congressional members to support language and efforts to include Tribes in CVF under the SURVIVE Act to Tribal victims are not left out. (Last year, that language didn’t make the final bill through the Senate)
  • Ability to charge perpetrators of other crimes committed
  • Protection for same-sex couples: There was a case that was dismissed due to the jury stating that there wasn’t enough evidence; meanwhile, the defendant had warrants and a lengthy history. The Jury saw them as not a couple as defined by the law.
  • Need to ensure that under this law, it needs to stay non-competitive for when more Tribes begin implementation
  • What can government agencies do?
    • If there are discretionary funds, have the departments shift those funds to CVF.
  • 10% each from Office of Justice Programs and CVF to Tribal governments and to Tribal criminal justice systems

The Stories:

Briefly, I will share my story, as well as provide two more stories, from two Native women, that I love dearly: My Ina (mother) and my best friend, my mitankela/sister, Victoria.

Words from my Ina:

“My story.  I was going to nursing school & met this guy.  We clicked & had a great time.  The more time we spent, the less time I spent with my friends.  The name calling started, the monitoring of my calls, & the constant stalking, keeping me away from my family.  One of the many horrific times in my life was when I was on my way back to school from home.  This truck side swiped me so I stopped to trade insurance information.  Instead, I was raped by a drunk man.  I was able to get away after he had finished & drove back to school.  I got to my apartment & he was upset that I was late & I told him that I was raped.  He said I deserved it.  And he proceeded to take me upstairs and have sex with me to get the other guy’s scent off of me.  The next day I reported it, but nothing ever came from it.

Another story:  I was a freshman in high school & became great friends with this guy!  We had great times, playing jokes on people.  I was invited to his party that he was throwing inathat Friday night.  I was excited because everyone that I knew from high school was going to be at this party.  I went against my parent’s wishes (I actually snuck out).  Everyone was having a great time.  I had too much to drink & passed out in one of the rooms.  I wake up to some pain & see my best friend raping me.  I through him off & couldn’t find my clothes, so I grabbed a sheet to cover myself.  I walked down stairs and he was standing there with a grin on his face.  I went home and told my Mom.  She took me to the doctor where I was checked out.  We filed a report on him.  He was picked up.  In juvenile court, he denied everything, and was never punished.  I had to deal with him my freshman year.  I ended up leaving school for another because of the humiliation.  It was at my new school where I attempted to kill myself.  My dorm mates found me and I was rushed to the hospital. There really hasn’t been an act to protect women from any assault.  VAWA would’ve been so helpful to my recovery from these horrid events.”- Ina

  • My Ina is my superhero. I was very little when I saw my mom get beat up, and I was helpless in the situation, hiding under a table or in a room, and felt absolutely horrible for not knowing how to use a telephone to dial 911.  Despite seeing this, I have seen the trauma it has caused her.  I understand more, now that I am older.  And it breaks my heart.  BUT, she’s a rockstar and despite what has happened to her, she became a pediatric nurse, graduated from undergrad and graduate school, all with a baby Jordan at her hip and being a pain in the butt perhaps.  This woman, who has faced a lot, is part of these statistics that Native women encounter.  She’s more than a number, she is my mother, and seeing her push herself, and her strength, has definitely been something I’ve been trying to emulate since I was little.

My sister’s story:

“I remember the day VAWA13 passed. It was an emotional day full of rejoicing with those close to me. I remembered the multiple emails and letters we sent to our congressional members urging them to pass it, the many calls and the many stories we heard from victims in Indian Country. It was a great day.

Growing up on and off the reservation, domestic and sexual violence is almost second nature. Going to school with bruises on my body would be a chance to test my acting skills. My brothers and I became experts at hiding when we were told to run. We became veryvictoria protective over our mother and each other. When you grow up living in fear, living in pain, it makes it really easy to create a persona that the world sees that isn’t true. That internal pain that a child has to live with and somehow still grow from, it’s detrimental.

So what does VAWA mean to me? It is optimism. VAWA means strength. It is hope that one day my strong native brothers and sisters no longer have to live in fear. VAWA is a chance to grow without pain and to know that my children won’t have to suffer like many of us have.”

  • This girl, my homefry, my bae, my bestie, my sister, my wonderful best friend, is truly amazing. When we first met and started talking, it was these stories that brought us together. We not only shared the hardships we’ve faced, the accomplishments we’ve had, but we shared our dreams of what we want for Indian Country.  This girl amazes me and she is doing so well in life.  It breaks my heart that she went through this because I can see how it has affected her, even to this day.  She’s killing it though here in DC, and this Gila River girl is about to graduate Georgetown University with her Master’s Degree.  Can’t wait to take on the world with my mitankela (sister).

My Story:

When VAWA passed, it was a day to remember. Watching President Obama sign S. 47, the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, was emotional. I teared up. Me being the type of person always wanting to help but always feeling helpless, I finally felt like this law will help protect those I can’t.  Albeit, there is much more to improve upon and accomplish, but it’s a step in the right direction. We as native women, have a story to tell. Mine, I kept silent for years, and this happened during my senior year of high school.  And from a jordanprevious blog that I wrote on eating disorders, my problem with eating came from this one toxic relationship. I didn’t have bruises to show. I had shame, low self-esteem, and severe trust issues.  And I thought, “how could someone I care about, who is supposed to care about me, treat me like this?” But I justified it with, “he’s having a hard time himself, I must deserve this, I must help him get better.” I suffered through verbal, mental, and physical abuse.  It wasn’t a daily or weekly occurrence, but it happened more than the “this happened just once, he was drunk.”  It’s amazing to see how we justify and rationalize things, especially other people’s actions.  Even today I have my issues.  Granted, I just started sharing my story, but until 2 years ago, I couldn’t even talk/think about it without feeling sick to my stomach. All of our stories are different; they are things that should not have happened. But this is no competition; this is an issue of protecting Native women.  Who, in our culture, are sacred.  Yeah that’s right, we are lady bosses! However, it’s our duty, women AND men, to fight for our rights and protect the sacred, and to advocate for legislation that will hold those offenders, accountable.

In Conclusion:

I have seen horrible violence happen as a young kid, I have heard the stories from family and friends, and I have seen the evidence on the person who was hurt.  I have felt it.  Being assaulted, being a victim of rape, is something that you carry with you. There is also other kinds of violence a woman may face, a child may face. However, with VAWA 2013, it only covers a portion of that. It can ruin a woman’s life. But, it doesn’t have to.  You can take the control back. You can build yourself up. You may be a little wounded, but being that statistic doesn’t have to define you.  It can empower you, and you can be a voice to help put a stop to it.  Your trust in men can carry on from man to man that you decide to date.  The pain, the anger, and the emotional instability may reside in you for a lifetime.  But, I have seen these victims grow stronger.  My family and friends have grown stronger.  I have grown stronger.  The most important thing that we can all do, in regards to ending violence against women, is sticking together, speaking up, and honoring our sacred.  I wish I could take the pain away or made sure this never happened but I can help be a voice for you, along with many other inspirational women and men, who are here in DC, and all over the country, speaking up about this issue. I really wish, and hope that one day, we aren’t just seen as a separate group when legislation is created.  People of Indian Country are often left out of the conversation, put on the back burner, and given the scraps.  I truly believe things are changing for once, and as long as we stick together and keep moving forward with our voices, we can continue to create change for us, and for our future generations. That is what Chief Sitting Bull wanted, and that is what we are here today, to do.

The Native Women’s voice is crucial. VAWA is under attack in the federal courts and specifically the Supreme Court. There was great victory in 2013 to restore tribal jurisdiction but it only covered a small portion.  During the Dollar General case, Justice Kennedy thinks tribal jurisdiction over nonnatives is unconstitutional. When it comes to pipelines, our Indigenous women are suffering and being assaulted by workers that reside in the “man-camps.” So us fighting to stop the pipelines, not only shows our love of the earth, and our resources that we need to protect, but we need to protect our women.  Click here for Honor The Earth “fact sheet.” However, Tribal courts are exercising jurisdiction of non-natives and the protection of our women, has begun.

Greater efforts by our men are happening, they are part of the solutions too.  The women are taking the lead and maintaining these efforts to protect our Tribal Sovereignty. Now, we must prepare, and help, to advocate for VAWA 2018, re-authorization. Day 1 of this “new presidency,” it was made clear that potential cuts to the Department of Justice, as well as many other programs, includes all 25 grants/pilot projects that aim to protect women and end the violence, in the Office on Violence Against Women.  While the numbers in dollar amounts seems small, it will have a significant impact on our women. The fight to resist this new regime….. continues. Be sure to check out Indian Law Resource Center and National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center for more updates and information. So let’s do this.

I’ll end with this: you’re awesome, you’re beautiful, you deserve the best, you deserve to be heard, and I love you. Mitakuye Oyasin!

indigenous women.jpg


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