In the face of flagrant chauvinism, women’s voices are rising defiantly to challenge a status quo that, until now, was accepted. Every day, more women step forward to share their stories of humiliation, harassment, and assault at the hands of powerful men. But the women who, statistically, have been abused most of all still lack the resources they need to prosecute their attackers.
“I know the hurdles that the prosecution goes through in effectively prosecuting a case,” Kalyn Free, former District Attorney in Oklahoma and former legal counsel to the Cherokee Nation, said in an interview with VICE Impact. “Women in general are much less likely to report assault. And for Native Americans, it’s even more staggering.”
A lack of reporting cases is only a small slice of the pie when it comes to domestic violence cases that go unaddressed.
“In Indian country, three-in-five women will experience domestic violence,” Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe who’s running for Congress in New Mexico in 2018, told VICE Impact. “The common thread is that when these native women are raped and assaulted, they face discrepancies in law enforcement.”
“In Indian country, three-in-five women will experience domestic violence.”
These discrepancies come back to jurisdiction. While each reservation is considered a sovereign nation, the tribal police don’t necessarily have the legal wherewithal to pursue perpetrators, particularly those of non-Native American descent. But federal and state authorities will often say that the reservation is outside their jurisdiction. This created a disastrous situation of unaccountability which resulted in the deaths and disappearances of countless Native women since 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled that tribal governments could not prosecute non-tribal members, even when crimes were committed on tribal land. The discrepancy has been vastly improved since the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), signed by President Obama in 2013.
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Deborah Parker, former vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington State, spoke in 2012 to implore Congress to address this issue, and shared the story of her first assault. The man who violated her as a toddler, a non-Native American, was never brought to justice.
Children who are exposed to domestic abuse and sexual violence carry the trauma with them throughout their lives. Even children who are never abused directly, but who witness violence in their household, have problems ranging from PTSD to behavioral problems, from learning disabilities to suicide, from incarceration to teen pregnancy, explained Free.
“Even if the child isn’t abused, the emotional trauma creates all these ills,” she said. “As DA in Oklahoma, I increased the number of cases we were filing and prosecuting.”
When she was a young, single, powerful District Attorney, Free had a hard time understanding why a woman would allow this to happen.
“I said, ‘If a man ever beat me up, I’d leave,’” she recalled. “These women hear things like that, and they don’t speak up because they know they’ll be judged. But when a man tells you if you leave, he’ll kill your children, you don’t leave.”
She saw cases where women would reach out for help, and then, after being threatened, they would drop the charges. DAs would say they couldn’t prosecute. So Free went to seminars on how to prosecute domestic violence cases without a participating witness.
“Even if the child isn’t abused, the emotional trauma creates all these ills.”
“We started saying to witnesses, ‘Guess what. If you don’t testify, we’re still not dropping the charges,’” she said.
In her six years as legal counsel for the Cherokee, Free helped develop a new system of support that encouraged women to speak out and to continue to speak out.
“As soon as a victim reaches out to law enforcement,” she said, “we immediately send out a victim’s advocate who would literally wrap her arms around the woman and her children. This gives them immediate support and confidence to know that they are going to be taken care of. We find shelters, housing, clothing, food and money. That is now a policy, not just serving the Cherokee nation but other tribal members and non-Native Americans as well.”
As Deb Haaland vies to be the first Native American woman elected to Congress, she plans to fight for funding for programs like this that support Native women. While she is happy VAWA passed (and there were senators who opposed it), she knows that now tribes need the funding to support it. They now have jurisdiction to prosecute some (but not all) cases of non-Indian perpetrators on tribal land.
“But they need qualified judges, they need support staff, they need probation officers, and people to go out and actually arrest people,” said Haaland. “If you don’t have the infrastructure in Indian country to make sure that every facet of this is implemented, you have to rely on BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] police, which might create a geographic challenge.”
This is a problem that Deborah Parker remembers from when she was growing up on a reservation in Washington State.
While each reservation is considered a sovereign nation, the tribal police don’t necessarily have the legal wherewithal to pursue perpetrators, particularly those of non-Native American descent.
“We didn’t have a strong police presence when I was younger,” she said in an interview with NPR in 2014. “Even if you called the police, often they didn’t respond. When they did, they would say, ‘Oh it’s not our jurisdiction, sorry.’ And prosecutors wouldn’t show up.”
Even though the question of jurisdiction has been largely addressed through the reauthorization of VAWA, Native women are still starkly vulnerable in certain instances. While tribal courts may prosecute non-Indians who commit domestic violence against a partner, dating violence, or criminal violations of protection orders, they still have no authority over crimes committed between two strangers, including sexual assault. That leaves a murky area for strangers coming onto the reservation.
Lisa Brunner, who grew up on the Ojibwe reservation, witnessed her stepfather brutally abuse her mother as child. She portrayed herself in Sliver of a Full Moon (www.sliverofafullmoon.org), a play written by Mary Kathryn Nagel that tells the true stories of Native American survivors of domestic violence.
“We have always known that non-Indians can come onto our lands and they can beat, rape and murder us and there is nothing we can do about it,” Brunner said in a 2014 article in the Washington Post. “Now, our tribal officers have jurisdiction for the first time to do something about certain crimes. But it is just the first sliver of the full moon that we need to protect us.”
On the front lines, Kalyn Free heard countless cases where police were called, perhaps by a neighbor, to investigate domestic abuse. A woman, cowering in a corner with a black eye, would say she fell into a doorknob, while her partner loomed over her. And the police would leave.
“Now we have law enforcement officers who know how to check to see if [these women have] been choked,” said Free, “and they can testify without the victims. If I had a magic wand and money was no object, I would put victims’ advocates and cooperating prosecutors on call 24-7 in every tribe.”