Indianz.Com > News > Indian Country continues push to strengthen Violence Against Women Act
Note: Video feed from Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will go live shortly before 2:30pm Eastern on December 8, 2021.
Indian Country continues push to strengthen Violence Against Women Act
Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Indian Country is making another push to restore tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit violence in their communities, only this time with a more supportive president in the White House.

Tribes and their advocates have been trying to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in order to hold all offenders — regardless of race — responsible for a wider range of crimes. But the prior Republican administration famously refused to support the effort despite facing pressure to do so.

The landscape has changed dramatically with Democratic President Joe Biden in office. Just last month, he signed an executive order to address high rates of violence in Indian Country, promising to help get VAWA across the finish line so tribes can arrest, prosecute and punish people who engage in crimes like sexual assault, human trafficking and child abuse.

“I’m directing federal officials to work with tribal nations on a strategy to improve public safety and advance justice,” Biden said during the White House Tribal Nations Summit on November 15. “This builds on the work we did together in reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, when we granted authority to try to exercise jurisdiction over non-Indian offenders who commit violence on tribal lands.”

“We’re going to reauthorize that again,” Biden asserted of VAWA. “We’re going to expand the jurisdiction to include other offenses like sex trafficking, sexual assault, and child abuse.”

Indianz.Com Video: President Joe Biden – White House Tribal Nations Summit – November 15, 2021

In 2013, Congress recognized inherent tribal sovereignty over non-Indians for the first time since a disastrous U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe. But the law is limited to a certain set of domestic violence crimes, and only applies to offenders with ties to tribal communities.

To close up gaps in public safety, tribes are seeking to update VAWA to cover violence committed by strangers and crimes that occur when children are present. They also want to address assaults on tribal law enforcement.

“The biggest thing that I believe tribal nations need and want for justice and public safety in Indian Country is empowerment,” President Whitney Gravelle of the Bay Mills Indian Community said during a policy panel at the Tribal Nations Summit. “We must empower our tribal nations with the ability and resources to allow them to adequately prosecute, punish and investigate the crimes committed against our people on our land.”

The crisis of missing and murdered Native people, especially women and girls, is high on the agenda as well as VAWA comes up for reauthorization. During the panel discussion, Chairwoman Janet Davis of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe shared how tragedy hit close to home with the murder of her niece, Amanda Davis, and the death of her niece’s unborn child. The December 2020 crime, which is still being prosecuted in the federal system, took place in front of Amanda’s young children on the reservation in Nevada.

“Her mother, tribal relatives and clergy weren’t allowed in the home or near the body for over 20 hours,” Davis recalled. “Would this have been allowed 45 miles away in Reno, Nevada? Why was this allowed on our reservation?”

Indianz.Com Video: Public Safety and Justice – White House Tribal Nations Summit – November 15, 2021

Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior, has been focusing on the crisis of the missing and murdered since her time in Congress. After joining the Biden administration in March, she has promised to help tribes with public safety and justice needs.

“In my first month, as Secretary of the Interior, I launched our missing and murdered unit to help put the full weight of the federal government into investigating these cases and marshal law enforcement resources across federal agencies and throughout Indian Country,” Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, said during the Tribal Nations Summit.

A hearing in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday afternoon is part of the renewed attention on VAWA. Haaland, who is the first Native person in a presidential cabinet, will be represented by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Wizipan Little Elk Garriott, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

The Department of Justice, whose leader, Attorney General Merrick Garland, addressed the White House gathering, is also sending a representative with Allison Randall, who serves as the Principal Deputy Director of the Office on Violence Against Women. In her written testimony, she said women from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians “saved my life” at a domestic violence shelter in North Carolina.

“They embraced me, taught me, and encouraged me to give back to other survivors, sparking my lifelong dedication to reducing domestic and sexual violence,” Randall’s statement reads. “It is thanks to those Cherokee women that I sit before you today.”

The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.1620, the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act, back in March. The legislation expands recognition of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians and includes provision to address the crisis of missing and murdered Native people.

Getting the bill passed in the U.S. Senate, however, hasn’t been easy. Tribal advocacy organizations like the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC) and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) ramped up lobbying efforts during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October in hopes of finally getting VAWA reauthorized.

“Violence against Indigenous peoples began with European contact and has continued to this day, adding up to more than 500 years of abuse,” the StrongHearts Native Helpline, a project of the NIWRC, said in October. “Domestic violence, which continues as a tool of colonization, represents a lack of respect for Native peoples.”

Historically, support for VAWA has been bipartisan. But during the Donald Trump era, Republicans in large droves abandoned their support for reauthorization, objecting to the pro-tribal provisions and other provisions they say are outside of the scope of the original law.

The doubts persist even though Trump is out of office. When H.R.1620 passed the House on March 17, only 29 Republicans voted for it. Just two Republicans are co-sponsoring the bill.

The roll call of YEAs included three of the four tribal citizens who serve in the chamber: Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation; Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation; and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

On the other hand, Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-New Mexico), a newcomer to Congress who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, joined almost all of her fellow Republicans in voting against the pro-tribal version of VAWA. The vote on the bill was 244 to 172.

Michelle Demmert
Michelle Demmert addresses the National Congress of American Indians annual convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 22, 2019. Demmert currently serves as Director of the Law & Policy Center at the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center and is testifying before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on December 8, 2021. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is scheduled to begin at 2:30pm Eastern. It will be webcast at

The witness list and written testimony follows:

Ms. Allison Randall – Testimony [PDF]
Principal Deputy Director, Office on Violence Against Women
U.S. Department of Justice
Washington, DC

Mr. Wizipan Little Elk – Testimony [PDF]
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Indian Affairs
U.S. Department of the Interior
Washington, DC

The Honorable J. Michael Chavarria – Testimony [PDF]
Governor, Santa Clara Pueblo
Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico

The Honorable Fawn Sharp – Testimony [PDF]
President, National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)
Washington, DC

The Honorable Stacie Fourstar – Testimony [PDF]
Chief Judge, Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes
Poplar, Montana

Ms. Elizabeth A. Reese – Testimony [PDF]
Professor, Stanford Law School
Stanford, California

Ms. Michelle Demmert – Testimony [PDF]
Director, Law & Policy Center
Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center
Fairbanks, Alaska

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice
Oversight Hearing “Restoring Justice: Addressing Violence in Native Communities through VAWA Title IX Special Jurisdiction” (December 8, 2021)
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