Chief Phyllis J. Anderson of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, center, recently signed an update to the tribe's code to take advantage of the Violence Against Women Act and the Tribal Law and Order Act. Photo: Chief Anderson

Another tribe asserts authority over non-Indians as VAWA remains in limbo

By Acee Agoyo

The Violence Against Women Act remains mired in partisan politics in the nation's capital even as tribes continue to utilize the law to protect their communities.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is one of the latest to assert authority over non-Indians as part of the law. The tribe recently updated its code to take advantage of landmark provisions in VAWA, as well as the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010.

"Our tribe has taken important steps towards fighting back on crime and helping our Choctaw people and communities feel safer and protected," Chief Phyliss J. Anderson announced in a post on Facebook on Wednesday. "These amendments to our laws combat domestic violence and dating violence crimes."

The 2013 version of VAWA recognizes the "inherent" authority of tribes to arrest, prosecute and sentence non-Indians who abuse their domestic partners. To exercise that authority, tribes must ensure that their justice systems protect the rights of defendants, such as offering jury trials and providing attorneys for those who cannot afford one.

But the law does not cover all domestic violence situations. Child abuse, sexual assaults by strangers and crimes against tribal law enforcement, for example, are not covered.

Native women are supporting an update to VAWA that would help close these loopholes. But no Republicans have signed onto H.R.6545, a Democratic bill whose provisions include efforts to address the crisis of the missing and murdered in Indian Country.

“We remain committed to the position that it is only through restored tribal sovereignty that we will be able to enhance the safety of American Indians and Alaska Natives," Lucy Simpson, the executive director for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, said in calling on Congress to expand on the tribal provisions of VAWA. "We will rise to meet the challenge of substantive policy changes that recognize the inherent sovereignty of all of our tribal nations.”

VAWA was due to expire on Friday until Congress included a short-term extension in H.J.Res.143, a bill that keeps the federal government up and running through December 21. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law in the morning.

Without further action, funding that tribes depend on to help victims and improve their justice systems will lapse. The tribal jurisdiction provisions, however, will remain intact.

According to a 2016 report from the Department of Justice, Native women and men face extremely high rates of violence. And Native women suffer from the second-highest homicide rate in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2017.

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