Advocacy in Action: 6-Point Action Plan

By NIWRC Policy Team: Kerri Colfer, Tlingit, Senior Native Affairs Advisor, Rose Quilt, Yakama, Director of Policy Division, and Paula Julian, Filipina, Senior Policy Specialist and Editor, Restoration Magazine

Violence against Indigenous women persists due to systemic barriers embedded within the laws, policies, and practices of the

The 6-Point Action Plan: Advocacy in Action: Restoring Safety of Indigenous Women.

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United States government. These barriers multiplied as the U.S. developed. The birth and growth of the U.S. resulted in the genocide of Indigenous Nations, as reflected in the seizure of Tribal and Native Hawaiian homelands and natural resources, the forced removal and relocation of Indigenous peoples, and living conditions where women are more likely to go missing and experience violence. The U.S.’ apologies to Native Hawaiians and American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) recognize the “devastation” to Native peoples as a result of U.S. citizens’ “many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect” and U.S. policies and actions, and the need for healing and reconciliation. To fully address violence against Indigenous women, these systemic barriers must be removed and Tribes must receive the necessary resources and funding to support rebuilding their Nations to protect their communities as they see best.

We urge the U.S. to reaffirm and support Indigenous Nations’ protective systems with the following 6-Point Action Plan:

1. Restore the Full Authority of AI/AN Nations to Protect Indigenous Women

After the Supreme Court’s decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish, 435 U.S. 191 (1978), Tribal justice systems could not hold accountable criminally abusive non-Indians, resulting in situations where individual non-Indian defendants piled up repeated and multiple prior contacts with Tribal police. At the same time, U.S. Attorneys declined to prosecute the majority of violent crimes—especially sexual abuse-related crimes—in Indian Country.

Thankfully, Congress set forth essential steps to address these barriers by enacting Title IX, the Safety For Indian Women title contained within VAWA 2005. Furthermore, the reauthorizations in VAWA 2013 and 2022 partially restored Tribal jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators. The limitations on Tribal authority leaves Indigenous women vulnerable.

Therefore, the U.S. government must restore the full authority of AI/AN Nations as the local governments to protect Indigenous women and their families.  

2. Recognize and Respect Indigenous Responses of Native Hawaiian Communities and Organizations to Protect Indigenous Women

In Senate discussions leading to the passage of the 1993 Native Hawaiian Apology of the U.S. (PL 103-150), the late Senator Inouye stated, “we cannot change history. We are not here to change history. But we can acknowledge responsibility.” The Apology includes recognition of “the long-range economic and social changes in Hawaii over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been devastating to the population and to the health and well-being of the Hawaiian people” and commitment to reconciliation between the U.S. and Native Hawaiian people. Recognizing and respecting Native Hawaiian responses to prevent and respond to the range of violence experienced by Native Hawaiian women changes a long history of forcing non-Native solutions onto Native Hawaiian communities.

The federal government has a distinct trust responsibility to Native Hawaiians affirmed in five treaties between the U.S. and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, and in more than 150 federal laws that created special programs and services for Native Hawaiians.

Relying on current non-Indigenous responses to domestic violence and sexual assault are short-term, temporary solutions that do not fully address the needs of Native Hawaiians. The path to safety for Native Hawaiian women is connected to recognizing, restoring, and strengthening the beliefs, practices, ceremonies, and lifeways of Native Hawaiian people. Native Hawaiian responses are essential to healing and revealing the Native Hawaiian way of life and sense of lokahi (harmony or balance).

3. Ensure Adequate Resources for Advocacy and Services for Indigenous Women

AI/AN and Native Hawaiian women experience some of the highest rates of violence in the country, yet culturally-appropriate services are almost nonexistent. Native victims are forced to confront and navigate a complex legal system and often face extreme obstacles when seeking justice and support. Disparities compound these barriers, as affirmed by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

“Due at least in part to the failure of the federal government to adequately address the wellbeing of Native Americans over the last two centuries, Native Americans continue to rank near the bottom of all Americans in terms of health, education, and employment …. Native Americans are more likely to live in poverty, be unemployed, experience rape or abuse, and be killed by police than any other ethnic or racial group …. And, in some respects, the U.S. Government has backslid in its treatment of Native Americans, … the Commission documented the federal government’s historic failure to carry out its promises and trust obligations. These failures included longstanding and continuing disregard for tribes’ infrastructure, self-governance, housing, education, health, and economic development … the “federal government’s failure to avail Native Americans of services and programs available to other Americans violates their civil rights.”

Our relatives need comprehensive services designed by and for Indigenous women and families to address the full range of support—from crisis response to prevention.

As sovereign Nations, Tribes are in the best position to determine how to protect their people and communities and to undo the damage caused by colonization and harmful laws and policies that have historically weakened local protections against Indigenous women. The U.S. must therefore ensure adequate resources for advocacy and services for Indigenous women to end this violence.

4. Remove the Systemic Barriers Facing Families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives (MMIWR)

The family members of MMIW have long-standing grievances about the failed response and denial of services by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The failed responses represent an institutional pattern embedded in these agencies as the staggering number of suspicious deaths of Indigenous women go uninvestigated despite overwhelming evidence. It is not uncommon for families to have multiple cases of MMIW.

To this end, each federal department must develop and implement MMIW protocols in consultation with Tribal Nations and Native Hawaiians to ensure the removal of systemic barriers and allow justice and healing.

5. Implement a Thorough Federal Response to MMIWR by Requiring Every Federal Department to Develop Action Plans with Meaningful Consultation with (AI/AN) Nations and Native Hawaiians to Address MMIWR

The U.S. government has a long-standing federal trust responsibility to Indian Tribes to protect and promote Tribal sovereignty. VAWA 2005 clarified that the unique legal relationship of the U.S. to Indian Tribes creates a Federal trust responsibility to assist Tribal governments in safeguarding the lives of Indian women. Confronted with the highest rates of violence in the nation, Tribal leaders continue to decry the federal government’s inability to discharge their duties to uphold their sacred, solemn commitment to AI/AN people and safeguard the lives of Indian women.

Accordingly, all Federal departments must continue improving the coordination of federal programs and resources available to Tribal communities by implementing a comprehensive, coordinated Federal response to MMIW with an action plan to address the systemic gaps concerning MMIW and other conduct meaningful consultations with AI/AN and Native Hawaiians.

6. Recognize That Both Land and Indigenous Women Are Sacred, Connected, and Must Be Protected by Legislative and Policy Actions

Embedded in all the ways Indigenous Nations have governed themselves since time immemorial is the care for and protection of women and their homelands, including the sacred status afforded to both.

U.S. laws and policies have historically sanctioned the abuse and exploitation of Indigenous Nations and homelands as a tool of colonization, resulting in both disproportionate rates of violence against Indigenous peoples and significant loss of and harm to the land. Those responsible for this ongoing violence and exploitation include military and extractive industries, corporate interests, and other government and private interests. We must continue to improve and strengthen U.S. laws and policies to reflect the respect, rights, care, and protection of women and homelands by Indigenous peoples.