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On Feb. 9, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (AK), Dianne Feinstein (CA), Joni Ernst (IA), and Dick Durbin (IL) finally introduced their bipartisan bill (S. 3623) to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

The legislation represents a significant step forward for tribal nations, where domestic and sexual violence occurs at unparalleled rates, and where cases involving murder or sexual assault frequently go unprosecuted.

The legislation represents a significant step forward for tribal nations.

“This bill represents the very best of Washington: a bipartisan coalition coming together to prove this country’s commitment to protecting the most vulnerable,” said Sen. Durbin. “A modernized Violence Against Women Act will strengthen what has been a critical lifeline to victims and survivors of abuse for nearly three decades. We need to ensure every survivor, whether they live in rural Alaska or urban Illinois, has help in a moment of crisis.”

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was first passed in 1994 to address violence and sexual assault across the country by providing resources and services for public safety and for survivors. The law was last reauthorized in 2013 and expired in 2018.

To better address the epidemic of violence in tribal communities, the 2013 reauthorization restored limited special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction to some tribes so they could prosecute non-Natives who committed domestic violence, dating violence, or violated protection orders on tribal lands.

This restoration of tribal jurisdiction is helping to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people, as violent offenders are finally being held accountable for the harm they are causing Native communities. But more tribal nations need to be included and the list of crimes tribes can prosecute needs to be expanded.

These provisions reaffirm the inherent sovereign authority of tribal nations to protect their citizens.

Fortunately, this new VAWA reauthorization bill would take major steps to do exactly that. The Senate bill would expand tribal jurisdiction over child, dating, domestic, and sexual violence; sex trafficking; coercion; stalking; violations of protection orders; obstruction of justice; and assault of tribal justice personnel.

Non-Native defendants would also be required to exhaust all tribal court remedies before appealing to federal courts, and tribal nations would be able to place offenders in Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities when sentenced to a year or more. These provisions reaffirm the inherent sovereign authority of tribal nations to protect their citizens and hold non-Native perpetrators accountable.

The bill also establishes an Alaska Pilot Program to address the unique jurisdictional and remote needs of Alaska Native villages. Tribal jurisdiction will be restored to a limited number of Alaska tribes, concurrent with Alaska jurisdiction. “The tribal title ensures that Alaska tribes are given the tools and resources necessary to combat this crisis,” said Alex Cleghorn, senior legal and policy director of the Alaska Native Justice Center. “Self-determination is a proven practice that recognizes that tribes are in the best position to address these types of issues.”

Further, the bill improves tribal access to federal crime databases by reauthorizing the Tribal Access Program with $6 million in funding for technical assistance and training, doubling the support provided in the last reauthorization of VAWA. Improving records and information sharing across multiple jurisdictions is essential to investigating missing and murdered cases.

In March 2021, the House passed its own reauthorization bill (H.R. 1620) by a vote of 244–172. Senate leadership plans to seek a floor vote on its own bill as soon as 60 votes are secured, likely in March after the Presidents Day recess.

We call on Congress to swiftly reauthorize VAWA and chart a more just future for Native communities. Survivors and their families need these public safety protections, and lawmakers should deliver them as quickly as possible.

People: Portia Skenandore-Wheelock

Portia Kay^nthos Skenandore-Wheelock

Congressional Advocate, Native American Advocacy Program (2021-2023)

Portia managed the Native American Advocacy Program, lobbying on legislation that affects Native communities.