State of Indian Nations: Protecting Women

Native nations are contributing to America’s economic recovery, says President Keel of the National Congress of American Indians. But tribes need more ability to make decisions for themselves to be most effective, citing federal law enforcement policy as a key example.

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Editor’s Note: The State of the Indian Nations Address was delivered Thursday, February 14, by National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel. The speech focused on congressional actions that could improve economic and social conditions in Indian Country. In this excerpt, President Keel describes how passage of the federal Violence Against Women Act would address a serious failure in Native law enforcement. For the full speech and a video replay, visit the NCAI website. 

There is nothing more important to tribal leaders than the safety and wellbeing of tribal citizens.

But today, one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime. Almost four in 10 will be beaten and abused by a domestic partner. The death rate of Native women on some reservations is 10 times the national average.

The numbers are so high as to be almost numbing. 

But here’s the thing: violence against women is not a cultural practice. It is a criminal practice. 

That’s why we don’t tolerate it. Tribes can and do pursue justice against Native men who commit these acts. But that’s not enough. 

We know that assaults against Native women tend to take place at private residences. 

That many Native women live on tribal lands. 

That almost 60 percent of Native women are married to non-Native men. 

We know all this, yet, we also know the tragic reality: today, tribes do not have the authority to prosecute non-Natives who beat, rape, or even kill women on tribal lands. 

State and federal authorities are often hundreds of miles away, without the local resources to investigate crimes. And in recent times, U.S. Attorneys have declined to prosecute a majority of violent crimes in Indian Country—most of which are related to sexual abuse.

No other government would stand for this violation of sovereignty or continued injustice. No other government has to. 

The solution is simple. Congress must reauthorize the landmark Violence Against Women Act and assure that tribal governments have the authority to prosecute non-Native men accused of violence against women on tribal lands. 

In other words, Congress must allow tribes, like all governments, to protect their own people and surrounding communities, from brutality. 

So if we believe that a Native woman’s life is worth the same as every other woman’s, if we believe that justice should not stop at the border of a reservation, if we believe that tribes are truly sovereign, then it’s time for the House of Representatives to step up, put partisan politics aside, and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with expanded protections for all victims of violence.

 

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