The Senate GOP’s VAWA Bill Leaves Native Women Behind

Supermajority Education Fund

November 26, 2019

This month, the Senate GOP presented its bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The 1994 law, which is supposed to mitigate intimate partner and sexual violence, must be reauthorized every five years. That renewal period lapsed in February, and now, months later, the public learned Senate Republicans’ new bill would remove certain protections for Native women, a population that experiences high rates of murder and sexual violence. 

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), removes provisions that were added in 2013 and which were included in a House version passed earlier this year that aimed to protect Native women from all forms of violence and abuse. Under the Senate GOP bill, non-Native men who are accused of abusing Native women on tribal lands could appeal to a federal court and not be subject to that sovereign nation’s judicial system, which means they wouldn’t have to exhaust tribal court remedies before they make an appeal. 

Additionally, the bill would allow accused offenders to say their civil rights were violated by tribal nations during the investigation process and sue them. This would strip tribes of their sovereign immunity from lawsuits in federal, state or tribal courts. It also imposes a time limit of 90 days on the tribal appellate court to reach a decision if a defendant appeals — a limit not imposed on state and federal courts.

As of 2016, 5,712 cases of missing Native American women were reported to the National Crime Information Center. Forty-six percent of Native American women have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking from an intimate partner, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and one in three Native American women will experience rape in her lifetime. 

Many of the perpetrators of violence against Native women are non-Native men. In 2018, the Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board, released a report on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in 71 cities, most of which were from 2010 to 2018. Six of the victims were trans women like Dameron. Of the cases where perpetrators were known, half were non-Native. More than two-thirds of sexual assaults against indigenous women were committed by white and other non-Native people, according to a University of Delaware and the University of North Carolina study. 

In her testimony in March before the House National Resources Subcommittee on Indigenous People, North Dakota State Representative Ruth Buffalo (D)  called for federal offices dedicated to mitigating violence to better collect data on violence against Native people. Buffalo described a search for a missing Native woman, Savanna Lafontaine-Greywind in 2017.

“There cannot be – there must not be – any more stolen sisters,” she said. “Not only was our local community affected by the murder of Savanna; the entire nation was shaken.”

Ernst’s bill has been placed on the legislative calendar. But Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of Congress don’t seem close to agreeing on VAWA reauthorization, according to HuffPost.