Friday, 30 March 2012

Tribal Self-Government and Violence Against Women

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is up for a re-authorization vote in the American Congress. Approval of a federal law that provides funding for victims of domestic violence seems like it should be a straight-forward, no brainer kind of decision. But as might be expected in Washington, things have gotten very political about it, and Republican opposition to the bill is seen as causing women to become very disenchanted with that party and throwing their support behind Barack Obama in the presidential election polls.

But beyond the politics which swirl around the re-authorization of this Act is an issue about indigenous self-government. The proposed reauthorization of the Act contains a provision that would give tribal courts jurisdiction to prosecute non-tribal members for “domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protective orders that occur on their lands. ”

But as Levi Ricketts, the editor in chief of the Native News Network comments, there is a opposition to giving tribal courts jurisdiction over non-tribal members. There is, in short, resistance to the idea of indigenous self-government and the exercise of those powers against non-tribal members for acts done on indigenous lands. This shows up the paradox of the US position that indigenous nations are sovereign and reveals of course the reality that indigenous nations are as sovereign as the United States government chooses to let them be, which really doesn’t seem like sovereignty at all to me.

But this is a debate that goes far beyond what the exercise of indigenous sovereignty, self-determination and autonomy should be. The need for tribal jurisdiction is a matter of pragmatics. Tribal court prosecution is probably the only way that perpetrators of these acts will face criminal charges. Now, this is not a matter of tribal systems being reluctant to prosecute their own. Far from it. As Mr Ricketts indicates, NINETY PERCENT ( yes NINETY PERCENT) of “perpetrators of violence against Native women are non-Indian men.” That puts the state and federal system failure to prosecute in an entirely different light. Mr Ricketts says that figures in a “2010 GAO Study, United States Attorneys decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse and related matters that occur in Indian country.”
(Link to GAO report see page 9 of the report for the statistics referred to by Mr Ricketts)

Amnesty International has carried out a study of violence against indigenous women in the United States. It bears out the remarks made by Mr Ricketts, stating in the report summary that “in at least 86 per cent of the reported cases of rape or sexual assault against American Indian and Alaska Native women, survivors report that the perpetrators are non-Native men.”

(link to full Amnesty Report )

As the Amnesty Report comments, the reasons for non-prosecution of these cases are “complex”. Jurisdiction issues are part of the problem, but the GAO report indicates that jurisdictional problem were “cited in only 2 percent of declinations” as the reason for non-prosecution. Clearly something more is at work—both in the high rate of sexual violence against indigenous women by non-indigenous men, and in the failure to prosecute. The Amnesty Report leaves no doubt about what this something else is: “prejudice and discrimination at all stages and levels of federal and state investigations and prosecution.”

The rates at which indigenous women are targeted by non-indigenous men is alarming in itself, as shown in these comments by Mary Annette Pember: “86 percent of rapes reported by Indian women involve a perpetrator outside of their race. This is not typical. For example, in 2004, 65.1 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence against white women were white and 89.8 percent of perpetrators against African American women were African American.”

In other words, indigenous women are targeted by non-indigenous men in percentages and numbers that should sound alarm bells. The failure to prosecute these crimes should sound alarm bells. The resistance to tribal court jurisdiction over these acts should sound alarm bells. The Native News Network feature on this urges a call to action, to contact US Congressional representatives to support provisions for tribal jurisdiction over acts of violence against indigenous women. The situation as it is grossly intolerable.

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