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Native Sun News: South Dakota Republicans vote against VAWA

Filed Under: Law | National | Politics
More on: john thune, jurisdiction, kristi noem, native sun news, republicans, south dakota, tribal courts, vawa

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Rep. Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota) votes against VAWA and reportedly advocates against tribes. Photo Courtesy

Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota). Photo Courtesy

Thune/Noem vote NO, but VAWA passes anyway
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Staff Writer

WASHINGTON —The US House of Representatives on Thursday Feb 28, voted 286 to 138 to re-authorize a version of the Violence Against Women Act that included provisions that strengthen tribal courts.

The bill which was allowed to expire in 2011, garnered national attention when several republican law makers including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), spoke publicly in opposition of the bill and the unprecedented provisions that made tribal jurisdiction over non-Natives law.

The debate over VAWA for the first time in recent memory brought national attention to legislation that has a direct impact on those living in reservation communities. Oglala Lakota political watchdog, columnist, and educator Ryan Wilson, feels that the public discourse on the bill forced lawmakers to learn about the constitutional intricacies surrounding Federal Indian Law and politics.

“Never in the history of federal legislation has an Indian issue received such national attention. This was a great civics lesson on the US constitution and it showed which lawmakers really understand tribal issues,” said Wilson.

The tribal provisions included in VAWA allows for tribal courts to hold, prosecute, and take to trial non-Native domestic violence offenders. This new provision is seen by many as a strengthening of tribal sovereignty. Prior to the law being passed the only option for tribes was to ask for Federal law enforcement officers to investigate and prosecute these crimes.

However, many of the cases were being lost due to the overwhelming layers of bureaucratically red tape that victims and law enforcement were forced to navigate. Brendan Johnson United States Attorney for the District of South Dakota, and the son of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), told Native Sun News late last year that VAWA along with the Tribal Law and Order act would provide greater protections for Native communities and allow for many more domestic violence offenders to be prosecuted.

“We are losing far too many of these cases because of how far witnesses, law enforcement, and victims must travel to Federal courthouses. VAWA would allow for tribes to prosecute many of their own cases which strengthen tribal sovereignty and the law,” said Johnson.

Surprisingly much of the bill had received tremendous bi-partisan support. The major sticking point for many republicans opposed to the bill were the parts that expanded the jurisdiction of tribal courts, and also the provisions that would cement the ability of tribes to hold non-Native domestic violence offenders accountable. Holly Cook Maccarro a lobbyist for Ietan Consulting of Washington DC, and one of the countless tribal advocates who helped make the inclusion of the tribal provisions a reality praised the work of both Native people and legislators who worked on behalf of tribes.

“The objections to the tribal provisions became a key point and my hands go up to those members of the House and Senate who stood with us the whole way and withstood the misguided, and sometimes racist, constitutional objections to the tribal provisions,” said Maccarro. “Our legislative victories are hard-fought and too few and far between these days. This was an example of how tribes win when we are of one voice,” she added.

For Native Americans in South Dakota the surprise came when they failed to receive support on the bills from two legislators who have in the past said they were working to establish better relationships with the State’s reservation populations. Both Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) voted against VAWA and according to sources with access to internal negotiations on the bill, both lawmakers spoke out against the inclusion of the tribal provisions. “…unfortunately our own Kristi Noem failed the civics lesson and in doing so once again failed the Lakota and Indian country” said Ryan Wilson.

In response to a question by Native Sun News, Courtney Heitkamp Communications director for Rep Noem defended the vote against VAWA by Noem.

“As a woman and mother of two daughters, Rep. Noem cares deeply about protecting all women, but fears that constitutional concerns surrounding provisions in the current bill could actually lead to delayed justice for women in Indian Country” said Heitkamp. “These concerns have been voiced by many, including South Dakota’s Governor and Attorney General. Legal challenges arising from the constitutionality of these provisions could delay justice, or even worse, abusers could walk free. Rep. Noem remains committed to providing the necessary tools to address the issue of violence in Indian Country and is currently drafting legislation to give our justice system more ways to combat domestic violence against Native American women,” added Heitkamp.

Many republicans like Noem questioned the constitutionality of the tribal provisions despite efforts by both tribal lobbyists and legislators like Gwen Moore (D-WI) to educate their coworkers on Federal Indian Law 101. Congress holds plenary power of America’s reservations which allows for legislators to create laws that exist outside of the usual constitutional restraints. A fact that many who were opposed to VAWA did not know or conveniently chose to ignore.

Senator John Thune (D-SD) in a statement to Native Sun News raised some of the same concerns that Rep Noem’s office cited.

“I remain supportive of VAWA, and voted in favor of an alternative bill offered by Sen. Grassley that would have ensured that all victims received assistance, reduced waste and overlap between the various programs that studies have shown prevents funding from reaching victims,” said Thune. “I remain committed to working with tribal leaders to find solutions to the safety issues that have plagued our reservations for far too long,” he added.

Former editor and publisher of Native Sun News, Tim Giago, who supported Noem in her Congressional run for office said, “I am very disappointed in Thune and Noem for taking the hardline stand of the Tea Party rather than trying to understand the fears and concerns of Indian women who believe they have been denied protection and justice for far too many years. Thune and Noem are supposed to represent all of their South Dakota constituents and Indian women are a large part of that constituency.”

The alternate bill which was proposed by Sen. Grassley (R-IA) stripped much of the parts of VAWA that strengthened tribal courts. Shortly after advocating for the his version of the bill Grassley came under fire for making comments alluding to a belief he held that Native American communities lacked the ability to give a non-Native defendants a fair trial. He would go on to tell reporters that the tribal provisions were unconstitutional. The statements made by Sen. Grassley enraged many across Indian Country where the comments were quickly labeled as racist and uninformed. Chase Iron Eyes founder of the social media website was one of many Native American intellectuals to speak out against Sen. Grassley’s commentary.

“The U.S. Constitution guarantees U.S. Citizens a right to a trial by a fair cross section of the community where the crime was committed,” said Iron Eyes. “This comment by Sen. Grassley is misinformed to put it nicely, arrogant and naively racist, or knowingly racist, according to his white-washed upbringing within the institutions of America, legal, educational, and otherwise, to put it truthfully,” he added. During the political wrangling over VAWA many longtime advocates for Indian Country went to battle on behalf of tribes including Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD).

“The statistics regarding domestic violence and sexual assault in some of our Indian communities are objectionable. I am pleased that a strong, bipartisan majority in the Senate has approved the VAWA reauthorization, including the Indian provisions to allow our tribes to combat this problem through their own judicial systems,” said Sen. Johnson in a statement to NSN.

Emerging from the political battle over VAWA were several lesser known Senators and Representatives who could now be considered friends to Indian country including Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI), Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID).

The bill will now go to President Obama who has also advocated for a quick passage of the bill with the tribal provisions which were ultimately included.

“Renewing this bill is an important step towards making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk” said President Obama.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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