Decades after being abused by a former husband, the physical and emotional scars are still with Sheila Harjo. She has difficulty speaking because of nerve damage to her face. She vividly remembers the first time he slapped her and the unimaginable cycle of violence that followed. Less than three months after they were married, her husband slapped her. “It hurt so bad,” she recalls. “It was one of those white burning fire things. My face was just burning.” In disbelief, she walked from the room. “Looking back now, I know that was my very first mistake, just letting it go, not saying anything to him. It was like it never happened. We just ignored it.”*
One year ago this Friday, President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 into law. This historic moment came a year and a half after the previous authorization had already lapsed, and put an end to a protracted political battle waged over new provisions aimed at increasing protections for particularly vulnerable groups.
These long-overdue changes to VAWA include new tools to combat violence against Native women, an epidemic that has gone unnoticed for far too long. Native women are currently more than twice as likely as non-Natives to be victims of domestic violence, and nearly three out of five have been assaulted by their spouses or intimate partners. New provisions in the 2013 VAWA Reauthorization will empower tribes to prevent and respond to violence against women in Indian Country. For the first time, tribal governments will be able to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators of domestic violence. Tribal courts will also have full civil jurisdiction to grant protection orders to ensure the security of Native women whose safety is threatened. These new provisions are set to take effect in March of 2015. However, selected tribes have already been authorized to exercise their new prosecution powers through participation in a two-year pilot program.
Granting this new authority to tribal governments signals an important change in the way we approach violence in Indian Country. However, it is only a first step. We must do more for the 43 percent of Native women who experience rape, physical violence, or stalking during their lifetime, both in preventing violence and prosecuting the offenders. It is only through increasing awareness and seeking solutions specifically aimed at the unique jurisdictional challenges in Indian Country that we will be able to achieve justice for Native women.
Alex Kitson ’16 is a Cornell Law Student and member of Cornell’s Native American Law Student Association.
Cornell is hosting several events in the coming weeks aimed at bringing attention to this important issue on the one-year anniversary of the new VAWA provisions. Please join us for the following:
Screening of Finding Dawn, March 6 at 5:15pm at Akwe:kon
Panel Discussion on Violence Against Native Women: Resistance and Responses, with panelists Jennifer Denetdale, Sarah Deer, and Amanda Sampson Lomayesva, March 12 at 4:15pm in the Moot Court Room (Rm 390)at Cornell Law School. A reception will immediately follow in the Saperston Student Lounge.