Moving Toward Justice: New Federal Law Addresses Violence In Indian Country

Vawa Finally Allows The Prosecution Of Rapists In Indian Country, But There’s Still More Work To Be Done

Erika Wurth
4 min read
Moving Toward Justice
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Without going into the most tedious history lesson of all time, suffice it to say that historically, the American government has oscillated between two policies when it comes to Native Americans: “Just stop giving them stuff” and “Here’s a little bit of stuff.” Obviously, neither one of these approaches have been particularly helpful in solving issues in Indian Country. Additionally, as far as Native Americans go, most Americans are far more concerned about who a “real” Indian is, and if they are real, could they tell them how to feel about the Indian sports mascot issue? Generally, non-Natives have little idea that many Native Americans are living in third world—and sometimes beyond—levels of poverty. Many communities contend with record-high infant mortality rates, unemployment rates, low graduation (from just high school) rates and disturbingly high rates of sexual assault.

One issue that continues to affect Indian Country is the rape of Native American women by non-Natives. Surprisingly, this is something that occurs far, far more often than rape of Native American women by Native American men. In fact, according to the Department of Justice, 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults against Native American women are committed by non-Native men. And until the Violence Against Women Act passed, there was
no way to prosecute non-Native men on reservations for rape.

The thing is, non-Natives living on the reservation knew this. That is, they knew they could rape and that there was no legal machinery in place to stop them, simply because they were non-Natives living in Indian Country.

Recently, Diane Humetewa of the Hopi tribe was unanimously confirmed by the US Senate as the first Native American woman ever to serve as a federal judge. Not only is this a historical moment in and of itself, it is incredibly important when it comes to things like the passing of the Violence Against Women Act, a bill that very nearly didn’t include provisions to prosecute non-Indians for rape in Indian territory. However, with people like Diane Humetewa serving as a US District Court judge for Arizona, things are improving.

Right now, three American Indian tribes—the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation of Oregon, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington—will participate in the Department of Justice’s Pilot Project to implement the new law. If these pilot programs are successful, this law will be implemented in all reservations—including those in New Mexico, a state in which it is sorely needed.

With the shooting in Santa Barbara, it should be more clear than ever how steeped we are in rape culture. For Native women, and certainly Native women in New Mexico, what happened in Santa Barbara brings to mind a daily reality. The rate at which Native women are assaulted and killed is higher than you can imagine. We need basic resources in Indian Country. We need good schools. A strong series of programs that help with language and culture revitalization because, believe it or not, these are the kinds of things that often make the difference between graduating with a high school degree and going on to college or not. We also need strong urban centers that provide these same kinds of things and that can acknowledge our tribal diversity and basic cultural and material needs (in places with high Native populations like Tucson, Albuquerque, Denver, LA and Minneapolis). And we need the same thing that non-Natives need: laws that further our autonomy and better our relationship with the surrounding communities. But we also need laws that protect us from being attacked and possibly dying, simply because we are Native American women.

VAWA is a small step. In fact, right now only the three Native communities I mentioned above are allowed to prosecute non-Natives for violence towards Native women, and even then, not towards men who are strangers to their victims. What Americans don’t realize is how many Native Americans live off of reservations (somewhere around 70 percent according to the latest census). But what they also don’t realize is how many non-Natives live on reservations (around 75 percent). So much needs to change. But with steps like confirmation of Diane Humetewa, who now occupies a position that historically, may have gone to a person who made simply existing harder for her ancestors, we’re getting there.

Erika T. Wurth's novel, Crazy Horse's Girlfriend, will be released by Curbside Splendor Sept. 2014. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University. She was raised right outside of Denver and is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee.

Moving Toward Justice

Recently confirmed federal judge Diane Humetewa

Official photograph

Moving Toward Justice

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