StrongHearts Native Helpline joins domestic and sexual violence organizations, advocates and victim-survivors across the United States in applauding the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). It was signed by President Joe Biden on Friday, March 11 as part of a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill. A total of $575 million in funding has been designated. VAWA is reauthorized through FY 2027.
VAWA reaffirms and expands tribal jurisdiction over crimes perpetrated by non-Native Americans, including sexual assault, stalking, sex trafficking, child violence, obstruction of justice and assault of tribal justice personnel. It also establishes an Alaska pilot project, which will enable a limited number of Alaska tribes to exercise Special Tribal Criminal Jurisdiction (STCJ) and clarifies that tribes in Maine are also eligible to exercise the same. For the first time, Native Hawaiians and Urban Indian Organizations were included in Title 8, which has historically been reserved for sovereign tribal governments.
In addition to restoring tribal jurisdiction over additional crimes, the Act also will codify the Tribal Access Program (TAP) to enhance tribes’ ability to access and obtain information from national criminal information databases; establish a reimbursement program, through which the U.S. Attorney General may reimburse tribal governments for expenses incurred in exercising STCJ; permanently reestablish the U.S. Bureau of Prisons Tribal Prisoner Program to allow tribes to place offenders convicted of violent crimes in tribal courts in federal facilities if the sentence includes a term of imprisonment for one or more years; and increase resources to tribal governments exercising STCJ.
Removed from the Act due to opposition from gun rights advocates was the “boyfriend loophole,” which would have restricted dating partners and stalkers from obtaining firearms if convicted of domestic violence. “According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, firearms are the weapon of choice for domestic violence homicides and one can easily assume that to reduce lethal violence against Native women, it is essential to keep guns away from domestic abusers,” said StrongHearts Director Lori Jump (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians). “Thirty-five percent of all women killed by men are killed by intimate partners with guns, and nearly half of the women were killed by someone they were dating.”
“Similarly, while stalking is a strong indicator of future violence and many felony stalking charges are pled down to the misdemeanor level, stalking misdemeanants are also not currently prohibited from purchasing or possessing guns,” said Jump. “StrongHearts is disappointed that this provision is not included in the Act.”
A provision to protect elders in domestic violence situations was also removed from the Act. Abuse can happen to anyone and is not limited to a specific age. In Native communities, people are taught to respect elders. However, they can still be victims of domestic violence.
“Each time VAWA is reauthorized we see more improvements to the law and additional positive steps being taken to put an end to domestic, dating and sexual violence in our communities — we applaud these latest efforts,” said Jump. “However, we still have a long way to go before these types of violence are forever eradicated in our Indigenous communities and tribal sovereignty is fully respected.”
History of VAWA:
VAWA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. In 2005, Congress reauthorized VAWA, which included for the first time the Safety for Indian Women title. The bill recognized the United States’ trust responsibility to assist tribes in safeguarding the lives of Indian women and explicitly provided that the title was created “to strengthen the capacity of Indian tribes to exercise their sovereign authority to respond to violent crimes committed against women.”
In 2013, Congress reauthorized VAWA, which restored tribal courts’ ability to exercise “special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction” over domestic and dating violence crimes or violations of protection orders regardless of the defendant’s Native or non-Native status, where the tribes meet certain requirements in accordance with the Indian Civil Rights Act per the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Tribal Law and Order Act, and where the tribe’s criminal justice system fully protects defendants’ rights under applicable federal law.
The reauthorized VAWA went into effect in 2015. The reauthorization recognized tribes’ sovereign power to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence both Indians and non-Indians who assault Indian spouses or dating partners or violate a protection order in Indian Country. It did not, however, cover sexual assault or rape committed by non-Natives who are strangers to their victims, nor did it protect Native children who are victims of abuse or assault. Although VAWA expired in 2019, Congress has continued to fund many of its programs.