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Republican Time-Wasting Is Killing Native Women

Dragging their feet on VAWA, the GOP proved again that protecting women and honoring tribal sovereignty aren't priorities in modern conservative politics.

Senator Joni Ernst (Alex Edelman/Getty)

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a landmark 1994 bill aimed at curbing domestic and sexual violence, which currently has to be renewed every five years, lapsed in February. On Thursday, the GOP unveiled its counterintuitive, anti-Indigenous VAWA replacement.

There is a disturbing trend in Washington: elected leaders coming painfully close to seizing the solutions for some of this nation’s most pressing social issues, only to be undone by the cheapness of conservative politics. VAWA is just the latest example. But it’s unusually explicit: The 2013 VAWA and the more recent House VAWA reauthorization draft included a number of provisions designed to better protect American women—including Native women, currently threatened by a continent-wide crisis of violence. The Senate version announced Thursday gutted those provisions.

Adjacent to the scourge of domestic and sexual violence is the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis (MMIW), a national epidemic defined by high rates of violence visited upon Native women and by a ragtag federal reporting system that allows many cases to slip through the cracks. To help address that, and to empower Native nations to tackle these issues, the 2013 VAWA, as well as the version recently passed by the House, explicitly extended the authority of tribal courts to prosecute non-Native abusers and killers of Native women.

The Senate version of VAWA, sponsored by Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst, arrived after months of opaque holdups, and walks back this 2013 provision, instituting a series of restrictions on the jurisdictional reach of tribal courts. If it is passed, non-Native men who abuse Native women on tribal lands will no longer be required to adhere to the legal process as set forth by the sovereign nation’s judicial system, but could undercut that sovereignty by appealing to a federal court. Ernst also followed in the footsteps of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos by including language that would allow abusers to sue tribal nations if they feel their civil rights have been infringed upon during the investigation, despite the fact that tribal nations across the board already have legislation to ensure due process.

Ernst’s Senate bill also walked back other provisions from the House version passed earlier this year. The House bill in April closed what’s known as the “boyfriend loophole” in the original VAWA, making it possible to restrict gun rights for those convicted of violence against dating and living partners—not just, as in the original VAWA, those convicted of violence against spouses and families. Ernst chose not to include this popular stipulation.

This isn’t the first time Republican politicians have sabotaged policies designed to protect women. Initially introduced in October 2017 by South Dakota’s Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Savanna’s Act was named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a Spirit Lake Tribe citizen and expectant mother who was murdered that August. Heitkamp’s bill would have set up a national MMIW database and included a series of requirements for law enforcement regarding responding to and reporting disappearances and murders. After the November 2018 elections, in which Heitkamp lost her seat to GOP Senator Kevin Cramer, the bill still unanimously passed the Senate. But when it went to the House, a fellow lame duck, Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte, held up the bill before introducing a version that stripped all punitive measures included for law enforcement agencies that did not comply with the new law, rendering it toothless.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski and Democratic Senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Maria Cantwell reintroduced Savanna’s Act in January; 10 months later, on Wednesday, the bill finally made it out of committee and will head back to the Senate floor for a full vote. The bill’s counterpart in the House—introduced by Democrats Deb Haaland and Norma Torres—has yet to go to committee. Congress has until January 6, 2021, to pass the bill, or else the process will have to start back at square one, again. Murkowski’s name is conspicuously absent from Ernst’s list of co-sponsors for the current VAWA draft.

This pattern persists in other branches of government, as well. On Friday, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr flew to Montana to speak at the Flathead Reservation, where he met with tribal officials to discuss how best to address the MMIW crisis. However, the gesture, along with his newly released national plan, which will place federal coordinators in 11 states and work to update the reporting databases—essentially stepping forward in the absence of passage of Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act—is undercut by the current administration’s championing of pipeline projects that studies suggest help drive the very violence against Native women that Barr stood alongside Flathead leaders and denounced.

At this point, refraining from cynicism is difficult. A handful of politicians are able to push through a relatively helpful bill in one chamber, then send it over to their Senate or House counterparts to tinker with it. And in the case of both VAWA and Savanna’s Act, the GOP stalls and stalls before laying out unacceptable terms, effectively forcing the bills to languish longer in committee as they’re revised and rewritten, only for those versions to be vanquished or allowed to expire.

State legislatures across the country have been far more proactive in combatting the MMIW crisis, passing legislation to form MMIW task forces, underwrite statewide studies and technology updates, and loop in tribal leadership and law enforcement to work alongside their state counterparts. But the state systems aren’t enough, both because they allow too much variance in data collection and tribal consultation and because the MMIW crisis feeds off the inattention and chaos from crisscrossing FBI, state police, and tribal police jurisdictions. The crisis needs federal measures.

Ignorance of the issue isn’t an excuse at this point. Four tribal citizens sit in the House. There are numerous Senate and House committees and subcommittees dedicated to listening to and addressing the issues plaguing Indian Country. Activists have stormed the nation’s capital to demand action. Social workers have pleaded before the congressional committees. Op-ed columnists and reporters at national publications have been writing for years about the need for a nationwide reporting system.

Ernst’s version of the bill probably won’t pass. It will, however, hold up VAWA further. And it should serve as the final tear to any veil of Republican obstructionism: Domestic and sexual violence threatens people across the United States every day. Everyone with an office in D.C. knows it. And this week, yet again, Republican politicians chose delays and proposals that would make that violence harder to stop.