With the high American Indian population in this state, Oklahomans have difficulty comprehending the congressional foot-dragging over the Violence Against Women Act. For those who have witnessed first-hand the impact of abuse and its troubling prevalence in the Native population, VAWA doesn’t seem controversial; it seems logical.
But VAWA, like so many other positive initiatives these days, has fallen victim to the climate of polarization, and is being kicked about relentlessly as a political football.
Although some negotiators in the House of Representatives agree VAWA is necessary in principle, they continue to haggle over a 10-page portion of the measure that would allow tribal police and courts to go after non-Indians who assault women on tribal land. With Native American women 2-1/2 times more likely to be raped than their sisters of other races, that segment would seem sensible to those in high Native populations. They know U.S. attorneys are often overburdened with other cases and based hundreds of miles from the probable location of an assault, and these victims were falling through the cracks in the justice system far too often.
The more conservative opponents of the legislation seem more worried about accused assailants having their rights stripped than the survival of victims. They fear tribal courts aren’t equipped to handle such cases, and that the alleged rapists, beaters and molesters may be deprived of their “constitutional rights.” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is one of the detractors; he says the clause aims to “satisfy the unconstitutional demands of special interests.” But Native American groups and women’s rights proponents like to think of themselves of voters, rather than special interests, and they say their “interest” is assuring that all victims of violence have protection under the law.
In Tahlequah, the implications are more far-reaching than in many other places. According to Pam Moore, director of the Institute for Native Justice, if VAWA is not continued, the anti-violence work of entities like Help-In-Crisis, the Cherokee Nation, Northeastern State University and the District Attorney’s Office could be gravely impacted. Moore should know; she was the founding executive director of Help-In-Crisis, the venerable agency that provides counseling, shelter and other services to battered women and their children. More than 500 families receive emergency shelter from HIC each year.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., has lately been a beacon of sensibility in the irrational brouhaha over the national budget and other matters like this one. He says this bill should be “routine,” and wonders why opponents are standing in the way of protection for vulnerable native women over a “philosophical point.”
Cole and others have met time and again with Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, but so far they’ve been unable to get their compatriots to see past their misgivings with tribal courts systems. Proposed compromises – such as an offer to allow non-Indian defendants a chance to appeal to federal law enforcement authorities after arrest and conviction – have thus far fallen on deaf ears.
Blame it on bigotry, lack of information, or fear of “otherness,” but this issue has drawn another line not just between conservative and liberal, but between conservative and conservative.
Those who have seen the problems close-up and personal think bias is the culprit. Cole understands that, too, and he told the New York Times some of his colleagues seem to “fear Indians are going to take out 500 years of mistreatment on us through this.”
Of course, “mistreatment” – and the driving desire to get rid of it – is exactly what VAWA aims to accomplish. And as simplistic as it sounds, if aggressors are determined to visit their atrocities upon women or other victims on tribal lands, then they should not be surprised if tribal authorities seek to prosecute them for their wrongdoing.
Congress should pass VAWA, and we should let our representatives hear from us. They’re here to serve us, not the other way around.