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Ending Violence Against Native American and Alaska Native Women

November is Native American Heritage Month, an opportunity to pay tribute to the rich ancestry and traditions of Native Americans. There are many ways to celebrate Native American Heritage Month, from reading Native American folk tales to learning about the role of Native Americans in our nation’s military to understanding the history of Indigenous people in our area.

This month, we also believe that it is important to call attention to an issue that impacts far too many Native American communities to this day: domestic and sexual violence. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, while more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence. These numbers are significantly higher than the violence experienced by non-Native women in the United States. Alaska Native women are particularly vulnerable to abuse, suffering the highest rate of forcible sexual assault in the country — and reported rates of domestic violence up to 10 times higher than the rest of the United States.

The overwhelming majority of Native women who are physically or sexually abused do not see the perpetrator brought to justice. This is due in part to a lack of law enforcement in Native communities. When cases are referred for prosecution, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 67% of these matters arising out of Indian country.

One of the more challenging aspects of bringing perpetrators to justice is that non-Natives make up the majority of residents on tribal lands and in Alaska Native villages. 76% of the residents of tribal lands and 68% of the population of Alaska Native villages are not Native American or Alaska Native. 97% of crimes against Native Americans are committed by non-Natives.

Yet if a crime is committed on tribal land, such as a reservation, by a non-Native person, it often cannot be criminally prosecuted by an Indian nation. In 2013, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) changed this law to allow tribal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of domestic and dating violence. This law did not cover a wide range of other crimes, including rape, murder, sex trafficking and child abuse. It also excluded Maine and Alaska from its jurisdiction. This means that many crimes against Native American and Alaska Native women will never be prosecuted.

There is a way that we can change this grim reality: by reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, with updates to protect Native Americans. The new bill would:

  • Expand tribal jurisdiction to include sexual assault, stalking and trafficking

  • Expand tribal jurisdiction to cover child abuse and related crimes

  • Improve data collection and response to missing and murdered Indigenous women

  • Create federal punishments for violating tribal exclusion orders (banishment for perpetrators of violence against women)

You can actively support Indigenous people this Native American Heritage Month by contacting your senators and asking them to support the reauthorization of VAWA. A sample script is below for you to email or fax to your senators:

Dear [your Senator’ s name] ,

My name is [your name], and I am a constituent from [your location]. I am emailing you today to urge you to support a substantially similar companion bill to H.R.1585, the Violence Against Women Act of 2019. The Violence Against Women Act is one of the pillars of the federal response to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. [Tell your Senator why VAWA has been so important to your community or, if you have a story you feel comfortable sharing, share your experience] . Every time VAWA has been reauthorized, it has been strengthened based on our increased understanding of gender-based violence. The #MeToo era, when survivors are clamoring for change, is not the time to roll back important protections or even to maintain the status quo. H.R.1585, which passed the House with strong bipartisan support, maintains protections for all victims, makes vital investments in sexual assault prevention, ensures sexual predators who prey on Native women can be held accountable, protects victims of domestic violence from intimate partner homicide, and increases victims’ access to safe housing and economic stability. As a voting constituent, I look forward to your response and to your commitment to supporting victims and survivors by supporting a bill substantially similar to H.R.1585.

Yours truly, [Your name]

If calling, you can use the same script, and change the last line to: As a constituent, I urge Senator [your Senator’s name] to support a substantially similar companion bill in the Senate. Can Senator [your Senator’s name] commit to that?

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