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NEWS The VAWA Makes American Indian Women Safer Offenders can be prosecuted in tribal courts beginning in March 2015.

Diane Millich, a Native American and victim of domestic violence, speaks prior to President Obama signing the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act at the Department of the Interior on March 7, 2013. Photo by Kevin Dietsch / UPI / Newscom.


he chances that a woman in the United States will be raped during her lifetime are one in five. Among Native American women, those odds rise to one in three. American Indian and Alaskan Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or a victim of other sexual violence than other women living in the United States. Statistics on domestic violence on Indian reservations are dire: Native American women on reservations are victims of physical assault or domestic violence “at rates as much as 50% higher than the next most victimized demographic,” according to a fact sheet from Futures Without Violence (http:// Moreover, victims of intimate partner violence on reservations are more likely than victims of all other races to require hospital care for injuries, 20

AJN ▼ May 2014

Vol. 114, No. 5

and they experience higher rates of anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other mental health disorders. Some 70% of violent victimizations of American Indian women are committed by non-Native men, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA) included a new “special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction” (SDVCJ) provision. The program allows tribal courts to prosecute non-­Indian defendants accused of domestic or dating violence against American Indian women. Because of gaps in earlier versions of the law, tribal courts couldn’t prosecute non-­Indian offenders at all, even if they were married to a tribal woman or worked for the tribe. Yet it was precisely that provision in the law that some Congressional

Republicans objected to, which kept the bill’s passage stalled for months and led some critics to accuse them of enabling rapists. Under the provision, tribes must guarantee certain rights to defendants, such as access to a public defender and including non-­ Indians in jury pools. Abusers who aren’t arrested are more likely to be emboldened, repeating attacks and escalating the level of violence. Many instances of serious domestic and dating violence on reservations go unreported, unprosecuted, and unpunished. The SDVCJ better protects American Indian women against all attackers, no matter their race. The VAWA goes into effect nationwide on March 7, 2015. Three tribes, the Pascua Yaqui of Arizona, the Tulalip of Washington State, and the Umatilla of Oregon, are getting an early start on enforcing the SDVCJ under a pilot project that took effect in February ( The SDVCJ provision occasioned “a huge sigh of relief,” says Desiree Coyote, program manager for Family Violence Services for the Umatillas in Mission, Oregon, and a survivor of domestic violence herself. According to Coyote, now that perpetrators can be held accountable locally, attackers can be steered into programs to effect changes in behavior (before, only victims and their children could access support programs). “We can ­assist our community with the overall physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of all involved,” says Coyote.—Carol Potera

The VAWA makes American Indian women safer.

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