The Right to Safe Housing and Federal Responsibility to Indian Tribes

A Statement Prepared by the NIWRC Policy Team Members Jacqueline Agtuca, Elizabeth Carr, Brenda Hill, Paula Julian, and Rose Quilt

The right of American Indian and Native Hawaiian women to safety was historically recognized by Indigenous nations long before colonization by Europeans. This right of women to safety within one’s home and in the community was assured by the beliefs and lifeways of their respective nations, and today housing is internationally recognized as a fundamental human right. The current challenges facing Indian tribes and Native Hawaiians in assuring this right is intertwined with the failure of the federal government to fulfill its federal trust responsibility to Indigenous nations to provide safe, stable communities.

U.S. Colonization Undermined the Relationship of Native Women to the Land and Their Homes

The multifaceted layers of United States colonization historically undermined the right of women to safety within their homes and destroyed the housing infrastructure of Indigenous Nations. Current federal law and policies fail to recognize and continue to diminish tribal sovereignty. The failure of the United States to fulfill its federal trust responsibility has severe consequences for women, including the lack of available housing, leaving them vulnerable to violence with many forced to flee their homes due to the lack of protections. This harsh reality is intertwined with the spectrum of violence that Native women continue to endure.

The U.S., through the multiple layers of colonization, destroyed the traditional homes and communities of Indigenous nations and failed to deliver the infrastructure and critical resources to provide safe and stable housing within Indigenous nations. The U.S. displacement of Indigenous nations through forced removal created substandard living conditions that left families without adequate or stable shelter. The United States seized over 1.5 billion acres from Indigenous nations by presidential executive orders and through treaties. The total acreage seized from Indian tribes is estimated to be 1/8 of the world2 and 1.8 million acres from the Native Hawaiian monarchy.3 “The United States’ primary interest in treaty-making was to acquire Indian land so the treaties were used for that purpose.”4

Additional Acts passed by Congress resulted in the further destruction of Indigenous land bases and the Native housing infrastructure, which specifically disrupted the status of Native women. Generally, Indigenous nations were and continue to be matrilineal. The responsibility for the home belonged primarily with the woman as the matriarch and head of household. Land settlement acts passed by Congress failed to address the vulnerabilities to the violence imposed upon Native women as a result of their displacement from their traditional homelands and destruction of their status within their nations.

“The command of removal came unexpectedly upon most of us. There was a time that we noticed several overloaded wagons were passing our home. Yet we did not grasp the meaning. Then one day, the wagons stopped. We were to be taken away and leave our homes never to return.”

-Sallie Farney, Survivor of Removal, Muscogee

Congressional Acts, Executive Orders, and Supreme Court decisions under the color of law were instruments of genocide under the definition of the United Nations. These federal laws and policies were utilized to terminate Indian tribes, overthrow the Native Hawaiian monarchy, dispossess and destroy homes, including the social infrastructure, that ensured the safety of American Indian and Native Hawaiian women. The Indian Removal Act of 18305 forced Indian Nations to move westward from their lands and homes east of the Mississippi. The Dawes Act6 of 1887 authorized the President of the United States to divide tribal collective lands into individual plots. The original relationship to the land and tribal way of life was further undermined as the western system of individual property ownership was imposed on Indian tribes and Native Hawaiians. In many instances, agents implementing the Act did not recognize women as the “heads of families,” which prevented them from receiving allotments.7 The California Rancheria Termination Acts8 of 1958 implemented the U.S. termination policy with Indian tribes in California. The Acts forced the removal of tribal peoples onto lands named rancherias that had limited housing options and these lands and assets would later be placed into private ownership. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 19719 attempted to eliminate the relationship of the Indigenous peoples of Alaska to their ancestral homelands. Alaska Native tribes were matrilineal, and continue to be, and women held responsibility for the home.10 Other federal acts also resulted in the loss of tribal traditional lands and homes altering the status of women and increasing their vulnerability to violence by government agents, including the military, corporations and churches, and the public.

  “Thus in 2 or 3 days about 8,000 people, many of whom were in good circumstances, and some rich were rendered homeless, houseless, and penniless exposed to all the ills of captivity.”11

The U.S. government has a federal trust responsibility to support Indian tribes and Native Hawaiians in providing safe housing to address the current vulnerabilities to violence that endanger Native women.

  Increased recognition and progress toward fulfilling the federal trust responsibility to support Indian tribes and Native Hawaiians to safeguard the lives of Native women is urgent. Federal law and the failure to fulfill this trust responsibility have resulted in Native women being displaced without safe shelter, placing them in settings where they are vulnerable to violence by government agents, members of the clergy, predators, sex traffickers, and abusers.

  The lack of safe housing increases the risk of Native women to gender-based violence.
•  Less than 50 Native based shelters for domestic violence exist in the United States.
•  Housing infrastructure is inadequate on tribal lands held in trust by the federal government.
•  Federal appropriations to Indian tribes to create and maintain housing are inadequate and must be increased to provide safe housing.

Federal reforms are needed to provide a range of safe housing for Native women.

  Federal programs exist to fulfill the trust responsibility to support Indian tribes and Native Hawaiians to provide safe housing, and these programs must be strengthened.12 The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) was enacted in 1996 to reorganize federal housing programs and increase tribal access in recognition of tribal self-determination. NAHASDA must be strengthened to achieve its goal of supporting housing for Indian tribes.

  In addition, federal programs must include increased support for Indian tribes to create and maintain safe housing for Native women and tribal communities. The Violence Against Women Act, the Victims of Crime Act, and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act are federal funding streams that exist but do not adequately address the need for safe housing as a necessary means for Native women to live free of abuse and violence. Indian tribes need federal support to develop a range of safe housing, including emergency shelter, transitional housing, and permanent housing. To be effective in supporting their healing journey and recovery from violence, housing programs for Native women must be established based on the specific tribal beliefs of the survivors.

Current 2019-2020 Legislation

  Pending Congressional legislation supports safe housing but does not address the outstanding and urgent needs of Indian tribes and Native women. The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) is the primary federal funding stream dedicated to the support of emergency shelter and related assistance for victims of domestic violence and their children. The Senate and House bills to reauthorize the Family Violence and Prevention Services Act (FVPSA) do not include the urgent need for increased funding for Indian tribes to provide safe housing for Native women.

  1. United Nations, International Bill of Rights,

  2. The Invasion of America, University of Georgia,,

  3. U.S. Public Law 103-150, 103rd Congress Joint Resolution 19, Nov. 23, 1993.

  4. Kevin Gover, Director, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, The “Indian Problem,”

  5. The Indian Removal Act, Pub.L. 21–148, 1830.

  6. General Allotment of 1887.

  7. 43 U.S. 581, Sally Ladiga, Plaintiff in Error, v. Richard de Marcus Roland, and Peter Heifner, Defendants.

  8. California Rancheria Termination Acts of 1958.

  9. Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

  10. Yup’ik Elder William Trader.

  11. Daniel S. Butrick, Cherokee removal: The Journal of Rev. Daniel S. Butrick, May 19, 1838 – April 1, 1839. The Trail of Tears Association, Oklahoma Chapter; 1st edition (1998).

  12. Housing Needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives in Tribal Areas, A Report from the Assessment of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Housing Needs, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban, Development Office of Policy Development and Research, 2017,….