During the March 7 signing ceremony in the offices of the United States Department of the Interior of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Vice President Joe Biden had a difficult time remembering all of the many advocates and legislators he wanted to highlight and thank for their hard work on making the enhanced law a reality.
Similarly, it is difficult to single out all of the Native American women warriors who worked overtime to make the tribal provisions of the new law come to life.
There were tribal leaders like Terri Henry, Deborah Parker, and Fawn Sharp. There were lobbyists like Holly Cook Macarro, Kim Teehee, and Aurene Martin. National Indian organization leaders like Jackie Johnson Pata, Juana Majel Dixon, and the crew at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) led conference calls, action alerts, and legislative visits. There were advocates on the ground including Pamela Dalton Stearns, Theresa Sheldon, Jax Agtuca, and countless other Indian grassroots activists. And there were the male crusaders, too, like Wilson Pipestem, David Bean, Ernie Stevens, and U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).
“I felt elated,” said Henry, a tribal council member with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, in summing up the day. “I’m incredibly happy and proud of our team of strong hearts—Native women and Native nations. I am humbled and honored that our collective effort to obtain this slice of justice was supported in so many ways by Native people across America.”
“It’s a miracle of such strength,” Dixon, secretary of NCAI and a Pauma tribal citizen, reflected in a YouTube video posted on the day of the signing by the U.S. Department of the Interior. “When we see the first case go through with the protections in order and our Native women protected … that’s going to be a breath of freedom, a breath of certainty that we can protect our people.”
All of them worked together for years for the greater good of Indian country as a whole—trying desperately not to allow tribal divisions on other issues get in the way (although Alaska Native women and families did lose out in the end due to a compromise pushed by their state’s legislators who fear expanding tribal jurisdiction in the “last frontier” state—a front that tribal women, including Johnson Pata, have said they plan to take on in the coming weeks).
Cole and his colleague, Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), were told many times throughout the ups and downs of the legislative process in the House that Indian country would not compromise on the inherent tribal court jurisdiction provision, first offered in the Senate version of the bill; nor did tribal leaders want the removal process to federal courts to be overly simple, as that outcome would have treated tribal courts as lesser judicial bodies. In the end, the House on February 28 passed the Senate’s version of the bill that tribal advocates had been pushing all along—inherent tribal authority and a strict removal process intact.
The strong voices of female tribal advocates played a major role in the process, with some of them, like Parker, going so far as to share their own personal tales of familial abuse to help sway legislators’ minds. They were stories that drew national media attention, and they led at least one congressman, Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), to change his mind to end up supporting the tribal VAWA.
Indian women also got the attention of the White House early on, and they secured the Obama administration’s unwavering support, with the Justice Department directly rebutting Republican legislators who argued that the tribal provisions were unconstitutional.
At the president’s signing ceremony, Diane Millich, a citizen of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, was invited to introduce Biden, and to share her personal story of marrying a non-Indian man when she was 26 who ended up assaulting her soon after he moved in with her on her reservation.
“After a year of abuse and more than 100 incidents of being slapped, kicked, punched, and living in horrific terror, I left for good,” Millich told the audience. When she asked the tribal police for help, they could do nothing due to legal restrictions that said the tribe could not prosecute her husband because he was non-Indian. “If the bill being signed today were law when I was married, it would have allowed my tribe to arrest and prosecute my abuser,” she said to applause.
Many of the non-Indian advocates who gathered at the Department of the Interior headquarters to witness President Barack Obama sign into law the VAWA probably didn’t really understand how much the law alters the playing field for tribes by recognizing their “inherent” sovereign power to have jurisdiction over their lands—still, they cheered loudly all the same, largely because they got what they wanted in VAWA, and because the overall basic message was simple: All women and families, regardless of skin color, should be able to live without the fear of domestic violence and abuse. If increased tribal court authority over non-Indians could make that happen for Native women, the non-Indian advocates were on board.
Obama seemed to understand, singling out the Native provisions and the people who supported them: “Tribal governments have an inherent right to protect their people, and all women deserve the right to live free from fear,” he said. “And that is what today is all about.”
The president also noted that Indian country has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in the country. “And one of the reasons is that when Native American women are abused on tribal lands by an attacker who is not Native American, the attacker is immune from prosecution by tribal courts. Well, as soon as I sign this bill that ends,” he said to major applause.
The president’s speech was televised, and if one looked closely, Indian women were well represented in the audience of his speech, and some like Parker and Millich made it onto the stage to shake his hand and to show their pride as he signed the bill into law.
Although the overall signing event was a celebration, it was also difficult because the tribal legislation of the hour wouldn’t be needed if Indian women weren’t getting abused at such alarmingly high rates. Aurene Martin, a citizen of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and founder of Spirit Rock Consulting, touched on that point, saying it was a “bittersweet” victory. “I was sad, because of all the women who had to suffer to make the amendments to VAWA necessary,” Martin said. “I cried during Diane Millich's speech because of how terrified she must have been in her own home and on her own reservation, among her own people.”
At the same time, Martin was “proud and elated because of the awesome, unified effort made by all of Indian country to support the changes to VAWA.”
Many of these women warriors are now being honored in their communities, as well as via phone calls and social network messages. During the VAWA signing week, some of them were honored at the National Indian Women Honoring Luncheon, organized by Washington, D.C. tribal advocates who wanted to support them and to encourage their future successes.
Cook Macarro, a Red Lake Ojibwe citizen and lobbyist with Ietan Consulting, was one of those honored. In all, the VAWA experience was overwhelming for her—and she’s no novice, having been through her share of legislative battles. “To stand with so many Native women warriors and watch President Obama sign the VAWA into law was one of the proudest moments of my career,” she shared. “As my tears flowed, I thought of the women back home in Red Lake, working and staying at Equay Wiigamig (Women's Shelter), and of the many other Native women who will now be protected and have access to resources because of this effort. For so many reasons, this was the sweetest of victories.”
Cook Macarro also shared a message for the abusers who made this law necessary: “To every non-Indian perpetrator of domestic violence or sexual assault on an Indian woman on Indian lands who went unprosecuted—take that!” she exclaimed. “You provided us with the story and legislative opportunity to touch the minds and hearts of Democrats and Republicans alike on the Hill and restore partial criminal jurisdiction to tribes for the first time since 1978.”