The following is testimony given by Pamela Stearns, City of Seattle Native American Employees Association (CANOES) president before James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Rights during a meeting of the Seattle Human Rights Commission on April 30 in Seattle, Washington.
My name is Pamela Stearns. I am an enrolled member of the Tlingit nation. I am Eagle/Shark (Wooshekeetaan Clan). My Tlingit name is “Tlingsei.” I am here today as President of CANOES (City of Seattle Native Employees) whose mission is to raise awareness and issues that are important to Native Americans and indigenous nations within the City of Seattle.
I am here to urge the [United Nations] to speak for the VAWA – Violence Against Women Act. The right to live free from violence and be safe is a fundamental human right.
American Indians and Alaska Native women are the lifeblood of our People, and our health and safety is essential to the survival of recognized and non-recognized tribes in the United States.
According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, 1 out of 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime and 3 out of 5 will be physically assaulted, while their offenders escape prosecution under the color of discriminatory United States law. In this human rights crisis, Native women are murdered at rates 10 times the national average, and subjected to domestic violence and assault at staggering rates — rates 2½ times higher than any other group in the United
According to the Indian Law Resource Center, these distressing statistics are linked to systemic barriers imposed by United States law—barriers that prevent Indian nations from effectively safeguarding their citizens and adequately responding to crimes. Unlike local communities or state governments, Indian nations and Alaska Native villages are legally prohibited from prosecuting non-Indians. Furthermore, federal law has greatly restricted the sentencing authority of tribal courts for offenders committing acts of sexual and domestic violence that occur within tribal lands and communities. In effect, United States law condones violence in Indian country and Alaska Native villages, where 88 percent of the violent crimes against Native women are committed by non-Indian perpetrators. Very few of these Native women have access to meaningful justice and ever see their assailants prosecuted. According to a recent United States Government Accountability Office study, U.S. attorneys failed to prosecute 52 percent of all violent criminal cases, including 67 percent of sexual abuse cases and 46 percent of assault cases occurring on Indian lands.
I had to flee my home in Alaska and I know many other women who did the same. I met my first husband when I was 14 at a teenage club in Alaska. I fell in love, and we married and we had a son. The abuse started right away. There was a lot of alcohol, lot’s of hitting, punching, screaming and choking. I would be left to lie in a pool of blood, wondering if I would live to the next day. One day, the end came. I was on my knees and he had a gun pressed to my head. He said he would kill me. I was tired of living that kind of life and so I said “go ahead and shoot me.” At the last second, he turned the rifle to the roof and fired into the ceiling.
It was because of domestic violence that I fled Alaska in the middle of the night scared for my life. I had to leave Alaska because there were no laws in place that could protect me. But when I left, I didn’t just leave my family. I left my culture behind. When I moved to Seattle as a teenager, I ran away from my traditions, from my songs, my dances, and my heritage. I just wanted to be safe and to leave that life behind. I wanted to stop being Tlingit.
It wasn’t until later in life, and with the power of prayer and recovery that I began my journey home. Today, I am a survivor of domestic violence, I am a warrior who is fighting to change laws and institutions that hurt our women and destroy our families. I have once again found my voice. Today I am a proud parent of a son, and two beautiful Tlingit girls and I am passing on the traditions of our people to them.
The message I have for the U.N. is that we cannot let domestic violence take away our culture. We need our traditions and the wisdom of our ancestors to survive. And to do that, Congress must reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.