American Indian Tribes and the Violence Against Women Act, 1995—2019, The Continuing Maturation of VAWA

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was enacted in 1995 as a result of national grassroots organizing by battered women and advocates. These efforts included Indian women who organized to engage state and federal systems to hold governments accountable to address the national statistics, crisis, and seriousness of violence—domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking—against women.

The Act’s passage in 1995 marked the federal government’s acknowledgment of the extent and pervasiveness of violence against women and the need for more dedicated resources for services, law enforcement and judicial responses to these crimes. Over the last two decades, VAWA has grown into a historic Act reshaping the laws, policies, and responses of federal, tribal, and state governments.

For each reauthorization, NIWRC has joined with the NCAI Task Force, tribal leaders, and the grassroots advocacy movement for Native women to partner with Congressional champions. This national alliance has secured legal protections and increased resources for Indian tribes to protect and support Native women. As a result, the VAWA has expanded its reach over the years to more fully include support for Indian tribes to address domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and sex trafficking.

VAWA’s Tribal Amendments Since 1994

The VAWA has been reauthorized three times: 2000, 2005, and 2013. With each reauthorization of VAWA, the national movement has achieved significant victories in support of tribal authority and also resources needed to increase the safety of Native women. These legislative victories include the following highlights:

  • 1994—VAWA included a 4% dedicated funding stream for American Indians and Alaska Natives tribes with a statutory purpose of “developing, enlarging, or strengthening programs addressing the needs and circumstances of Indian tribes in dealing with violent crimes, including sexual assault and domestic violence, against women.”
  • 2000—VAWA increased the tribal dedicated funding stream from 4% to 5%, provided increased clarity regarding tribal court protection orders and enforcement, and created a tribal coalition grant program.
  • 2005—VAWA included a Safety for Indian Women Title, recognizing the unique legal relationship of the United States to Indian tribes and women. Congress explicitly provided that the title was “to strengthen the capacity of Indian tribes to exercise their sovereign authority to respond to violent crimes committed against women.” It authorized the creation of a single VAWA tribal grant program, increased tribal funding across VAWA to a minimum of 10%, created a tribal unit and Deputy Director for Tribal Affairs, and mandated annual tribal-federal VAWA consultations. VAWA 2005 also added dating violence as a new purpose area.
  • 2013—VAWA included a historic amendment affirming inherent tribal authority over non-Indians committing specific acts of domestic violence or dating violence or violation of certain protection orders in the Indian country of the tribe, provided increased funding for the tribal coalition’s program, and recognized sex trafficking as a new purpose area under the tribal grants program.

Continued Support and Inclusion of Indian Tribes is Needed

These amendments demonstrate an increasing awareness of the need to address violence against Native women and the critically important role of Indian nations in the full implementation of VAWA. The high crime statistics among Native populations represent the ongoing impact colonization has had on Indian people and nations. The federal Indian legal framework is devastatingly complex and one that Native victims must confront and navigate all too frequently while seeking safety and protection.

Overall, resources are scarce and culturally appropriate resources are practically non-existent. Many barriers and questions exist concerning jurisdiction, law enforcement and/or funding availability, lack of culturally appropriate services and victim advocates, emergency shelter availability, and coordinated rape crisis responses. In addition, many Indian tribes are excluded from utilizing all of the legal advances gained under VAWA to protect and serve Native women. During the annual consultation, tribal leaders from Alaska Native villages, Indian tribes from Maine and Michigan, and other regions of the United States have testified to these restrictions and need for additional reforms under VAWA.