VAWA Tribal Provision Continues Caste System in Indian Country
Senator Maria Cantwell, the chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, stated in regard to tribal provisions in VAWA, “If you think you are rooting out crime in America and you are letting a sieve happen in Indian country you are not rooting out crime. You are sending a signal to people that this is an easy place to go. You are saying that this is the place where you can escape the law."
Clearly, Sen. Cantwell knows little of Indian country and reservations. The oldest Indian reservations in the country and the Indian women who reside on them will continue in the same situation regardless of the tribal provision’s passage or not. Why? Because some of the eldest tribes of the reservation system are not ‘recognized’ by the BIA and therefore are not a part of the nouveau “Indian Country” that is being sold far and wide in the press. These historic reservation communities are the very “sieve” the Congresswoman is speaking of without even knowing so.
My brown-skinned, brown-haired, brown-eyed, more than half-Indian by blood, indigenous language speaking, reservation based family having daughter won’t be protected under the current tribal provisions being proposed for VAWA. As a member of a reservation based historic state-recognized tribe and a federal Indian band in Canada she is not technically “Indian” here in these United States of America. And this goes for many other women.
The passage of this tribal provision without their inclusion will further disenfranchise their historic communities and set further precedent against protecting all Indian women. The caste system of preference continues unabated and unchallenged even when violence is the result.
In a recent New York Times article, Senator Tom Udal states, “Native women should not be abandoned to a jurisdictional loophole.” Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening with the lack of caring for this “non-federal” segment of the American Indian population.
Tribal courts are more often corrupt than not. The constant state of disenrollments in Indian country is clear proof of the ineptitude of them. Courts can’t protect the women in our family. They deal with the issue after it has occurred. They do nothing to train our community residents to be better parents, loving husbands, and partners. They do nothing to educate our people to adhere to generosity and love. They throw ever increasing sentences at people when statistics clearly show that increased incarceration and lengthier sentencing does in no way lessen crime.
Any man knows that assaulting a woman in any form is despicable and completely wrong, but it continues nonetheless as the focus is on prosecution, not raising able, committed, strong young men.
Going to prison is normalcy in the community where I grew up. In fact it is sadly a badge of honor and respect carried around by many men. It is reconditioning this attitude that needs to be worked and focused on, not theoretical prosecution models that disregard reality.
Next is the fallacy that most tribal courts could even deal with such issues in any effective manner. Indian prosecutors (if the “tribal” prosecutor is even Indian) routinely do not take on cases, especially in smaller tribal communities, when they are related to the one who is going to be prosecuted. In fact, they work diligently to make sure that the victim is voiceless. Also, as many are white and trained in mainstream law schools, they bring in the same type of Eurocentric value system that would have been used by an outside courtroom. So the “justice” being done mirrors the mainstream court systems. I have watched family members being torn apart by the tribal court system with no recourse as federal Indian courts/tribes invoke sovereign immunity at the mere thought of having to defend their actions. The tribal court system is for “U.S. federally-recognized Indians”, so there are Indians who are not “non-Indian”, but are viewed as non-Indian as they are not federally recognized. This includes any state recognized tribal member or status/non-status Indian or Metis from Canada when they reside in the U.S. Many such individuals do live on reservations in the U.S. and are married to federal Indians in the U.S. as well. I am a perfect example of this. They are voiceless in tribal decision making as are non-Indians. Tribal members are routinely “above the law” in their own courtrooms, with non-tribal members being guilty before proven innocent as a common occurrence. As someone who has been prosecuted as a “federal Indian” in a U.S. tribal court (though not a domestic violence case) I can attest firsthand of the political vindictiveness that occurs. Some of the court cases are nothing more than political games of chance with the judges and prosecutors hand picked by the very tribal officials leveraging charges.
The next problem is the statistics that are consistently broadcast showing that most cases of abuse on American Indian women are at the hands of non-Indians. It is the unwritten rule that you don’t rat out your own folks, and I have seen time and time again that Indian women receiving abusive treatment from their Indian partners are pressured by even their own families not to report the abuse. However, when the non-Indian or non-tribal member engages in this abuse you better bet that the case is reported in a prompt manner. Indian men beat up Indian women regularly and with consistency. We are just as much predators as non-Indians. This is not just a non-Indian issue, this is an issue of a bunch of Indian men who are simply cowards. They will beat their wives and won’t defend the women of their own community against non-Indian offenders. What may be termed “vigilante justice” in the non-Indian world can be considered traditional practice for some tribes in the Indian world. Many tribal societies have/had men’s groups which “adjusted” the attitudes of those men who engaged in abuse towards women. These societies are virtually non-existent these days.
Having been a solvent abuse counselor and long time educator in Indian country in both the US and Canada, I know firsthand the rate of offenses against Indian girls and women and who was perpetrating the crimes. 90%+ of those who I came in contact with were attacked by Indian men and most never reported the crimes. Indian men are living in a perpetual state of denial about the abuse of Indian women. Indian men needing to seek outside assistance to handle the issue of abuse against their own wives, sisters, nieces, grandmothers, aunties, and other female relatives is in complete contradiction to our roles as protectors and caring community members.
Let us end with another recent sound bite related to VAWA from Senator Cantwell in the North Kitsap Herald, “…basically strips the rights of Native American women and treats them like second-class citizens.”
I guess that makes the Indian women of the nation’s oldest reservations third class. The level reserved for those who have been completely abandoned by not only the outside world, but by their own.
I would like to apologize for those from my tribe and others like ours who attended the Indian boarding schools, for those who have been victims of domestic violence, for those who have endured generational racism from the outside world and now internalized racism from the rest of “federal” Indian Country. I am sorry we have been such an inconvenience.
Cedric Sunray is the project coordinator for the Haskell Endangered Legacy Project (H.E.L.P.).