Last month I was honored to chair the Department of Justice’s 7th Annual Government-to-Government Consultation on Violence Against Native Women. During the consultation I had the opportunity to hear from tribal leaders from across the nation who share the department’s commitment to the safety of Native American women and children. The tribal leaders shared stories of devastating violence and inspiring resilience, and I am humbled and honored to be a partner in our joint effort to keep their communities safe. This month OVW joins the President Obama and the Department of Justice in celebrating Native American Heritage Month.
Native America Heritage Month gives us an opportunity to reflect on the significant contributions made by Native Americans, the unique relationship between tribal nations and the federal government, and the contemporary challenges confronting many tribal communities.
Domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking occur at crisis levels for Native women. Rates of domestic violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women are now among the highest in the entire United States. And although we know there is a need for more and better data, what we do know is startling to even the most seasoned prosecutor, police officer, or advocate.
- Nearly half of all Native American women– 46 percent– have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner.
- One in three Indian women will, at some point in her life, experience the violence and trauma of rape.
- On some reservations Native American women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average.
Recognizing that this cycle of violence must end, Attorney General Holder has launched a department-wide initiative on public safety in tribal communities, with a particular focus on combating violence against women. The Department of Justice is committed to providing the necessary resources to enhance the federal response to these crimes and to support tribes in their efforts to ensure safety for Native women. Through this initiative, the department has undertaken a series of activities aimed at improving the response to violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women:
- On January 11, 2010, the Deputy Attorney General sent a memo to the United States Attorneys whose districts include Indian Country directing them to work closely with law enforcement to pay particular attention to violence against women in Indian Country and make these crimes a priority.
- The department added 28 new Indian Country Assistant United States Attorneys in FY 2010 to increase prosecution of serious crime.
- The department has created a Violence Against Women Federal/Tribal Prosecution Task Force. Task Force membership includes Assistant United States Attorneys and prosecution representatives from tribal governments. The Task Force is assisting the department in the development of best practice recommendations and resource materials concerning the prosecution of violence against women crimes in Indian country.
- OVW has established a national clearinghouse on the sexual assault of Native women. This project will offer a one-stop shop where tribes can request free on-site training and technical assistance on a host of topics related to sexual assault.
- In FY09, OVW provided funding for a project to address the issue of collecting and preserving sexual assault evidence in rural and geographically isolated tribal communities. The SAFESTAR Project features a novel approach to this issue by highlighting the use of community-based lay health care providers, such as traditional midwives, medicine people, and community health aides to collect and preserve forensic evidence in sexual assault cases.
- The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) provides support to enhance American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities’ capacity to provide high-quality multidisciplinary services and support for adult and child victims of sexual assault through the AI/AN Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE)–Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) Initiative.
- OVW recently released a solicitation for the National Tribal Protection Order Registry Initiative. This initiative will provide timely access to accurate data for Indian tribal governments related to individuals who are the subject of a criminal or civil protection order issued by tribal courts. The registry will also provide participating tribes with the opportunity to share information about alleged domestic violence offenders with other tribal jurisdictions nationwide. For any interested applicants, this solicitation closes December 18, 2012.
- In June OVW announced the selection of four tribes for a Violence Against Women Tribal Special U.S. Attorney (SAUSA) Initiative. The OVW Tribal SAUSA program, based on successful programs initiated by U.S. Attorneys across the country, will train eligible tribal prosecutors in federal law, procedure and investigative techniques to increase the likelihood that every viable violence against women criminal offense is prosecuted in tribal court, federal court or both. The program enables tribal prosecutors to bring violence against women cases in federal court and to serve as co-counsel with federal prosecutors on felony investigations and prosecutions of offenses arising out of their respective tribal communities.
In addition to these activities the Justice Department recognizes that the legal framework for criminal jurisdiction in Indian country is complicated and undermines safety for Native women. This is why the Department formally and publicly recommended to Congress new Federal legislation intended to fill gaps in our criminal-justice system, and to better protect women in tribal communities from violent crime. The proposed amendments to VAWA consist of three components – reaffirming tribal criminal jurisdiction over certain non-Indian offenders who commit acts of domestic violence or violate protection orders; clarifying tribal civil authority to issue and enforce protection orders regardless of the race of the offender; and bringing Federal criminal offenses more in line with state domestic violence laws.
The overarching theme of this three-part legislative package is to focus on the seriousness and dangerousness of the violence, not the racial identity of an alleged perpetrator. A tribe’s ability to protect its citizens from violence should not depend on the race of the assailant, but rather on one of the most basic and fundamental functions of any government – the responsibility to protect its people.
As we reflect on the devastating impact violence against Native women has throughout tribal communities we have reason to hope. We are optimistic because we know we have federal leaders who are committed to addressing this issue. We have strong partnerships with tribal governments. And, we have a shared vision of a future where all tribes thrive as prosperous, vibrant, and safe communities. OVW has made the safety of Native American and Alaska Native women a top priority. We will continue to work with tribal communities to decrease the number of Native American women who fall victim to violence; to strengthen the capacity of tribal governments to respond to violent crimes; and to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable.