There was much rejoicing this week as the Violence Against Women Act was renewed and expanded in the Senate by 78 to 22 votes. The expansion will give Indian tribal courts the right to prosecute non-Natives who abuse Natives and protect gay victims of domestic abuse. Now all that is needed is for the House to follow suit and make this law.
However, there was also much chagrin among Native Americans and their advocates over the arguments used by the 22 white male dissenters -- some of whom argued that it is unconstitutional for Native courts to prosecute non-Natives for crimes against Natives. "Where in the constitution does it guarantee you the right to attack another person without ever facing legal repercussions because of race?" asked Sarah El - Fakahany, a sexual assault advocate in Minneapolis, "Why is it that people are concerned about non-Natives being charged for attacking Natives, but people aren't outraged that non-Natives are attacking Natives? Why do we assume that violence against Native women is inevitable? It's not in their blood. It's not a part of traditional or modern Native culture"
As current laws stand, things are heavily staked against Native women -- they have the lowest life expectancy rates of anyone in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti, raging suicide rates and 75 percent of them will be physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Consider what pitiful protections Native women have under our current laws:
"If I were to go back to my Reservation and get assaulted by my husband there is little to nothing I can do," explained Dawn Bjoraker, a Lakota woman married to a white man.
The federal system declines to prosecute more than 50 percent of cases. Senator Cornyn (R-Texas) represents a State that does not have a reservation -- how can he have a realistic opinion about what really happens to us? He kept referring to the constitutional rights of these men -- what about our constitutional rights? What I am hearing is that I am a second class citizen on my land.
Sen. Cornyn and others see this expansion as some kind of power grab by tribal courts. Tribal courts are legitimate institutions of justice and are recognized as such by the Federal government. However, they are restricted in jurisdiction and power: The Tribal Law and Order Act caps sentences at a maximum of three years for any single crime. The tribal courts offer more of a limp handshake than a power grab.
This outrageous double standard has gone on long enough -- Native women are American citizens and deserve the same constitutional rights as powerful white men. We need to ensure greater protections for them, not fewer ones -- encourage your representative to pass the Violence Against Women Act. And ask yourself "Whose Constitution is this anyway?" It's ours, not yours or his.