VAWA Tribal Provision Continues Caste System in Indian Country

Cedric Sunray
February 26, 2013

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.).




Politics in tribal matters has been there for eons. In the days of the ancestors though, if one group didn't agree with another group they just all loaded all their things up & moved off to start their own camp. Also, in those times, once groups were put on the Rez in the late 1800's politics really came into view more often. These chiefs were often times called "Loafs about the fort", meaning they tried gaining favor with their wardens, the white soldiers so as to gain clout & get their particular agenda carried out by their wardens. Many times, the "will" of the people was not carried out & instead old rivalries were taken care of this way. Yes, we have spite issues to this day in our own tribal courts. A Rez can be a very politically charged place among certain families. People are scared to say anything if one of the "favorites" are doing a bad thing. It should not be this way, because the Great Spirit does not show favoritism when He judges us. Let someone go against those who are considered favorites on a Rez & see what can happen when they tell you to leave. Those who don't willingly leave the Rez once banished would have wished they did. Things start happening to your property, your animals & worse. This is what goes on the Rez when those favored families have it in for someone. It's not right, but it certainly goes on. Don't believe it? Try living on the Rez a while & turn certain family members in for a crime & see what happens!
This was an excellent story. It mapped out so many of the injustices that we must stand against with Idle No More. We will not forget who pushed us down and forgot us along the way. No colonial force should ever intrude upon the lives of the Indigenous peoples like this. This is Genocide plain and simple and we better be ready to stand against those who are willing to go the long haul against historic tribal citizens and those of us from Northern Turtle Island. Thanks for taking the time to wake up the people brother~ Miigwetch
I am a victim of physical abuse, verbal abuse, financial oppression, I've had my house vandalized, and the NDN men even went so far as to have bad medicine/curses placed on me. They were not man enough to face me, so they went behind my back when I wasn't home and vandalized my property and the latter. Like Cedric's article indicates these were men from my own race, not necessarily the same tribe. When a man decides to run around with different women and then thinks that he come back home there is something wrong with him. The Bible talks about a "woman's scorn", this is true. I was not one to support this one so called "man" who hid all of his child support from me, 6 kids from 3 women. He thought he could actually get away with this, telling me that he couldn't help pay for bills because he had to pay child support. Native american men can be very deceitful, not "HONEST INJUNS". After all of the deceit, infidelity, destruction of my property, trying to take advantage of my finances, I immediately attempted to end the relationship. When I told him to get out of my life, he turned around and beat me. Domestic Violence is about power and control, after this he thought he could intimidate me into letting him stay... When I reported on him to the tribal police, all bruised, bleeding, the tribal police officer had the audacity to ask me what did you do to make him do this. I found out that this, so called man, had a history of being a wife beater, which is why none of his relationships lasted. Fast forward 10 years of being a single parent and happy, I met a man from another tribe. (People and family were very critical of me dating outside my own race.) We married 4 years after we met. After we got married he did a 180 on me, he seemed to think that our marriage license was a guarantee that I would not file for divorce. I gave him fair warning that if he ever started picking on my children and me thats it, the second was if he ever went out on me. He didn't believe me, he did both about the same time and thought nothing would happen. This guy even told me when he got out of the military, "You work and I'll stay home with the kids." I told him I didn't recall ever agreeing to that arrangement...When I confronted him, he left. Apparently he thought that thats what he could do, just walk away. He was mad about the child support for our child, he was mad about having to pay for his own bills, which I was able to prove in court were his own. This guy did the same thing to me, he put stuff in my car's gas tank. He went to medicine men from his tribe to pray against me. (It took me awhile to figure this part out both times.) Going to tribal court was no picnic either. Our tribal judges aren't knowledgeable of the law, qualifications: property, livestock, language. I hope this VAWA helps all women, no matter what. It's true what Cedric writes about family's not wanting you to report on the NDN perpetrator.