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Today marks National Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls Awareness Day. This is a time to uplift the voices of survivors; a time to honor and remember those that are lost, those that have never been found, and the families that have had to bury loved ones.  

It is also a time to call on our lawmakers to address the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. Congress took a major step forward in March when members reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act with strong tribal provisions. But one bill is not enough—there’s far more that must done.  

The Struggle for Justice in Native Communities

The crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People has persisted with tragic consequences, especially for Native women. More than 4 in 5 Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, often at the hands of a non-Native perpetrator.

More than 4 in 5 Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, often at the hands of a non-Native perpetrator.

Yet justice remains far too elusive for victims and their families. This is largely due to the systemic degradation of tribal sovereignty over the years. Supreme Court decisions like Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe have determined that tribal courts do not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try non-Natives and punish them for their crimes against tribal citizens.

Despite the federal trust responsibility to safeguard tribal citizens, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that U.S. Attorneys declined to prosecute nearly 52% of violent crimes that occur in Indian County. 67% of the declined cases involved sexual abuse.

Why the 2022 Reauthorization of VAWA Will Help

On March 15, President Biden signed the omnibus spending bill into law (P.L. 117-103), which included the 2022 Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

VAWA, first passed in 1994, provides significant resources to address domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking nationwide—and has gradually authorized the restoration of tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators.

The tribal title in this new reauthorization of VAWA expands tribal criminal jurisdiction to more tribes, including Alaska Native villages. It expands the list of crimes that tribes can prosecute and removes the requirement that a non-Native perpetrator have significant ties to the tribal community. Non-Native defendants will also be required to exhaust all tribal court remedies before appealing to federal courts.

This is a considerable step forward in correcting the problems Oliphant created by respecting the sovereignty of tribal nations and improving the public safety of tribal citizens.

What’s Next

However, it will take more than criminal justice efforts to protect survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence—and that’s where the Family Violence Prevention and Services Improvement Act (FVPSA) can help. FVPSA is the only federal grant program dedicated solely to domestic violence shelter and supportive services. It also serves as the primary source of funding for these services in tribal nations.

After a long four-year wait for survivors and advocates, Congress finally delivered on VAWA. It’s time to do the same for FVPSA.

There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, yet there are less than 60 tribal shelters and less than 300 tribal domestic violence programs across the country. FVPSA has not been reauthorized since 2010. The House passed their FVPSA (H.R. 2119) back in October, but the Senate has yet to vote on their own version of the bill (S. 1275).

VAWA will help more tribes implement public safety protections. FVPSA will help all tribes provide culturally appropriate and life-saving prevention and treatment resources for their citizens. Both are key pieces of legislation to address the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.

After a long four-year wait for survivors and advocates, Congress finally delivered on VAWA. It’s time to do the same for FVPSA.

People: Portia Skenandore-Wheelock

Portia Kay^nthos Skenandore-Wheelock

Congressional Advocate, Native American Advocacy Program
Portia manages the Native American Advocacy Program, lobbying on legislation that affects Native communities.