WASHINGTON ― House Republicans on Wednesday quietly tried to repeal a major provision in the Violence Against Women Act that helps tribes respond to horrific levels of violence directed at Native American women by non-Native men on tribal lands.
During a House Judiciary Committee markup on the 2019 bill to reauthorize the law, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) offered an amendment to repeal provisions in the 2013 law that give tribes jurisdiction over non-Native people who commit crimes of domestic violence, dating violence or who violate a protection order against a victim on tribal land.
He claimed that non-Native domestic abusers’ constitutional rights might not be upheld if they harm a Native woman on tribal land and have to go before a tribal court. His amendment would have also stripped out new language in the 2019 bill to expand tribes’ jurisdiction over non-Native abusers who commit crimes of sex trafficking, stalking and violence against law enforcement officers on tribal land.
“Tribal courts do not necessarily adhere to the same constitutional provisions that protect the rights of all defendants in federal and state courts,” said Sensenbrenner. “This sets us down the road to a dangerous path.”
This is the same argument that Republicans made in 2013 before they voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. It completely glosses over the reality that tribes are sovereign nations with their own laws in place for responding to crimes committed on their land, just like any other state or country has laws for this.
Tribes fought hard to add this provision to the Violence Against Women Act ― they nearly lost ― because, prior to 2013, jurisdiction over non-Native abusers on tribal land fell to federal or state law enforcement, who are often hours away from reservations and lack the resources to respond. That meant non-Native abusers on tribal lands were essentially immune from punishment and could keep being violent. Thanks to the provision, tribal law enforcement now has the ability to intervene.
Native women on reservations experience violence at appallingly high rates. More than 84 percent of indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime, and the vast majority of Native victims of violence ― 96 percent of women and 89 percent of men ― report being victimized by a non-Native person. Native women are also mysteriously going missing and being murdered.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the committee, said the tribal provision in the Violence Against Women Act respects tribes’ “inherent sovereign authority” to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Native abusers.
“By exercising this jurisdiction, tribal communities have increased the safety and justice for some victims,” said Nadler. “There are no constitutional concerns with this provision … It’s a salutary provision of the law. It should not be abolished.”
The committee ultimately rejected Sensenbrenner’s amendment along party lines, in a 9-16 vote. Republicans who voted for it were Reps. Doug Collins (Ga.), Ken Buck (Colo.), Mike Johnson (La.), Tom McClintock (Calif.), Ben Cline (Va.), Greg Steube (Fla.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Sensenbrenner.
Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said he’s happy to talk to any lawmakers about why the tribal provision in the Violence Against Women Act is vital.
“We are very concerned that members of the House Judiciary Committee tried to take away our sovereign right to prosecute domestic and dating violence perpetrators in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act,” Sneed said in a statement. “Leaders from Tribes have fought for years to protect our Native women and children through strengthening our Tribal courts. VAWA was an integral component of exercising our tribal sovereignty to protect the most vulnerable amongst us.”
This article has been updated with comment from Sneed.