The Restoration of Native Sovereignty and Safety of Native Women

By Paula Julian, Kerri Colfer, and Heather Bruegl, NIWRC Policy Team

A Name and Strategy

Every name has a story, and every story has a beginning. Such is true of the name, story, and beginning of Restoration Magazine.

The story of the magazine’s name—Restoration of Native Sovereignty and Safety of Native Women—reflects a strategy for increasing the safety of Native women through strengthening the sovereignty of Indian Nations. Why such a long name for a magazine that began with only 21 pages? The answer can be found on the pages of the first Restoration:

"We dedicate this publication to our relatives, the seen and unseen. Our grandmothers and grandfathers suffered and died so that we might live. We feel the spirits of our ancestors every day and are thankful for strength and fortitude they bring to this call for action."—Restoration Magazine February 2004, Volume 1 Issue 1, “Acknowledgements”

Restoration was born in February of 2004 as a way for the movement to win the inclusion of a separate title within the 2005 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)—today known as Title IX. Safety for Indian Women. From its birth, it saw the world through the eyes of the American Indian and Alaska Native women and Tribal Nations who created it—content developed and written from their lived experience. In this way, Restoration’s story is that of a political magazine created to make fundamental social justice changes based on the experience of their movement to live free of violence. Its long life is a testament to the importance of the stories between its covers.

In the ‘90s, the movement’s founding grandmothers knew the roadblocks to safety were far greater than the need for federal grant dollars and law enforcement. While funding was desperately needed, a much larger problem existed. Holding individual abusers accountable was blocked by the governmental system that allowed abusers to walk free. A government system signaling to the world that violence committed against Native women is tolerated—it is just the way things are.

“While increased resources to Indian tribes have saved lives, fundamental legal reform essential to the safety of Native women remain unresolved. Legal barriers and lack of resources to Indian tribes limit the ability of tribes to address violence against Native women. The ability of a government to protect its citizens from the violence of rapists and batterers rests at the heart of sovereignty.”1

If responding to individual violence is like climbing a steep and rugged mountain, then reforming the government system and allowing the violence to occur is like moving that same mountain. It requires digging deep to uncover the federal laws dating back to the 1800s and their implementation that exacerbate such violence.

“The safety and status of Native women have never been about just one offender and the criminal justice system. The oppression of Native women is reflected in continuing and drastic poverty, extreme levels of homelessness, lack of medical care, food, transportation, employment, childcare, and other lack of resource dilemmas faced by Native women attempting to escape violence.”2

The reality of the inhuman treatment of Native women in the U.S. is a lived experience, and systemic changes are needed.

“The questions aren’t ‘Why do women go back? Or why don’t they report or cooperate with law enforcement?’ The question is, ‘How in the world do Native women who are battered or experience violence ever survive?’”3

Where to begin? What exact laws and policies needed to be changed? Since 2004, Restoration has supported the movement by creating a space to discuss and understand the lived experience of Indigenous women, their Nations, and peoples and the systemic changes needed.

Dissecting Colonization, the Rule of Law, and Safety of Indigenous Women

In the first meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice Violence Against Women Grants Office in March of 1995, Tillie Black Bear and other advocates clearly stated their worldview for implementing the new VAWA; we are sovereign women of sovereign Nations. This position held two overarching themes: domestic violence is not traditional, and domestic violence is an extension of U.S. colonization.

This political approach guided the twist and turns over the years of struggle to win and implement federal reforms and strengthen sovereignty.

This view faced many challenges, but three were constant: First, a challenge to sovereignty. Second, to the legitimacy of the reforms being proposed. Third, to how changes in law or policy should be implemented.

Restoration played an essential role in offering an Indigenous counter position to each of these challenges. It explained how a reform specifically increased or decreased the safety of Indigenous women from abusers, rapists, and other predators. In this way, survivors of abuse and their advocates directly provided leadership using their individual experiences as living examples of why the reform was needed and how it would increase or decrease the risk of violence.

Restoration became a resource in national discussions of legal and policy reforms, annual consultations mandated under VAWA 2005, etc. It offered answers from an Indigenous view of proposed government positions and changes. The testimony of Diane Millich during U.S. Senate Hearings during the VAWA 2013 struggle to pass the Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction is one of many examples. Diane’s testimony of the injustices she faced by the federal and state governments countered the opposition to returning Tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians. This struggle and many others are given a voice on the pages of Restoration to support building the movement “beyond the shelter doors” and informing national policymakers.4 This content is why, for nearly 20 years, many look to Restoration to understand current issues.

“Sovereignty and safety are hand and glove. The sovereignty of Indian tribes is connected to the safety of Native women. This connection is the natural relationship of a people to their nation; it is also the natural relationship of a government to protect and safeguard the lives of its citizens.” —Former Chairwoman Terri Henry, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Supreme Court of The United States.

The movement was fortunate to have the leadership of women who understood the foundational role of U.S. law in normalizing the ongoing spectrum of violence committed against Indian Nations and women. In the middle of intense efforts to discredit calls for change through misinformation, this leadership kept their “eyes on the prize.” Understanding change is step-by-step. The key ingredient being political clarity by defining the difference between American Indian and Alaska Native viewpoints versus a Western viewpoint. In this way, steady progress occurred from 1994-2013.

On February 23, 2004, the first Restoration Magazine was
published to inform and educate national policymakers of the
importance of a separate tribal title within the VAWA 2005.

The movement struggled to reform the Federal Indian Law, that while unjust and biased, was generally assumed by lawmakers and federal agencies to be unchallengeable. And yet the movement—Native women, their advocates, and Nations—knew that Indian Nations never agreed to these laws. The “Rule of Law” principle of U.S. democracy is based on the “consent of the governed.” There was no consent to the set of laws they demanded to be changed to restore safety to the lives of Native women.

Fundamentally, these old laws are based on the 550-year-old Doctrine of Discovery, pronounced on May 4, 1493, by Pope Alexander and later expanded. It granted European nations the right to claim the lands they discovered on behalf of Christendom. The legal foundation of the U.S. is bound to the Doctrine of Discovery, justifying the genocide and forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples. For example, in 1823, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the landmark case Johnson v. M’Intosh invoked the Doctrine, and as recent as the 2005 Supreme Court decision ruling against a land claim by the Oneida Indian Nation.On March 30, 2023, Pope Francis renounced the Doctrine of Discovery. The Vatican released a press statement stating, “The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous Peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political “Doctrine of Discovery.”7

How will this repudiation by the Pope impact the legal foundation for the theft of lands and governmental policies under the rule of law? Will the U.S. now repudiate the Doctrine and amend old laws that endanger the lives of Indigenous women and diminish Tribal and Native Hawaiian sovereignty? To date, a deafening silence appears to be the response. It poses a historic question for the movement’s future: How should the Indigenous grassroots organize to hold the U.S. government accountable?

Political Clarity as Legal Barriers Change: Repudiation of the “Doctrine of Discovery”

All social justice movements face the challenge of identifying a clear path forward to remove the specific injustice faced. To win victories requires both an analysis of why the law or policy is unjust and a way, a vehicle, for sharing the analysis. Restoration helped in both ways.

The overarching strategy of strengthening sovereignty to increase safety came naturally as part of the struggle for survival of Indigenous women within their Nations against colonization. The movement’s history has a specific story, response to injustice and violence, as it unfolded in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and into the new millennium.

The injustices facing Indigenous Nations and Peoples appear endless because the reach of colonization is multilayered and over 400-years-old. Individual safety cannot be disconnected from the social system—including, but not limited to, the justice, health, educational, and economic response—in which we live. Thus, the broadest context for the safety of Native women is the overall safety of Indigenous peoples within the United States.

To understand everyday safety for Native women living in the intersection of the federal government and Tribal Nations, it is essential to raise discussions and analysis to an abstract level, to determine the milestones needed next to allow continued progress. In the early years of the Restoration, these themes were summarized as lessons drawn from reality that could be applied to organizing efforts. These themes were published in Restoration from 2008 to 2015 as lessons.

Lessons of the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Women

The grandmothers of the movement built a grassroots response of Tribal women anchored by advocates—most of whom were survivors. The strategy of restoring sovereignty to strengthen safety was at the heart of the movement. It focused on federal reforms because Indian Tribes are separate sovereigns with the authority of governments, but limited over time by the U.S. government. A tangled web of illogical, legal, and policy limitations bind the authority of Tribal governments to protect their peoples.

Restoration provided a communication link for new and ongoing issues necessary to act. Content for Restoration reflected an organizing approach for change. The policy team of NIWRC, working in partnership with the movement, wrote articles offering analysis essential to political clarity. From 2012 to 2015 an entire page was printed in Restoration titled: “Lessons of the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Women.” These four lessons offered general themes for organizing under the broad umbrella of the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women. Two focus on defending sovereignty and two on building the movement.

American Indians and Alaska Natives: Recognition of the sovereign relationship of Indian Tribes in the lower-forty-eight, to the 227 Tribes located in Alaska Native villages. In 2004, this emphasis was critical to defending the sovereignty of the 227 federally recognized Indian Tribes in Alaska. The Task Force saw the attempt to separate Alaska Native Villages as less than the lower-forty-eight Tribal Nations, threatening the sovereignty of all Indian Nations. While still facing many challenges, changes from the mid-1990s to 2023 (including the recent inclusion of the Alaska Subtitle of VAWA 2022) clearly state the progress that must continue.

Addressing Public Law 83-280: In 1953, during the termination era, Congress enacted what is known as PL 280, transferring federal criminal justice authority to specific state governments without the consent of the Indian Tribes impacted. The federal and state misinterpreted PL 280 to grant sole jurisdiction to the state governments versus shared Tribal/state jurisdiction. Unfortunately, it was not corrected until 2000 under Attorney General Janet Reno. This misinformation impacted the development of Tribal criminal justice systems within PL 280 states. The Department of Interior, as a policy interpretation, denied Indian Tribes in PL 280 states access to federal funds to develop Tribal justice systems.8

Balancing Western and Indigenous Justice Approaches9: The strategic goal of the NCAI Task Force is to increase safety and restore the sacred status of American Indian and Alaska Native women. A dual approach to achieving this goal exists. One approach is to reform the Western justice system’s response to crimes of violence against Indian women. The other approach is strengthening and restoring the full authority of Indigenous justice systems, whose Tribal beliefs and practices operate as protectors of women within their Tribal Nations.

Broad Communication: Restoration was published to inform and share with Tribal leadership, advocates, and Tribal communities emerging issues impacting the safety of Native women. The magazine continues to serve as an information bridge for the thousands of Tribal leaders and community members to understand and participate in the national movement. Restoration recognizes that to understand the ongoing changes in law and policy affecting safety, Tribal leaders, advocates, and community members need a bridge to access the necessary information.

The Twist and Turns to Win Historical Victories, 2000 to 2023

The pages of Restoration for nearly 20 years provided information on crucial legislative victories. At times, Restoration coverage provided steps forward, other times steps backward, and often a delay or pause. These articles document and provide a record and analysis to support the movement’s organizing efforts to inform and educate Congress and the administration. The issues addressed are national in character and frequently embedded into the structure of the United States. In many ways, they threaten the safety of future generations of Native women, and potentially, all Native peoples.

Discussions focused on how each issue endangered everyday safety and created roadblocks to addressing other legal and policy matters that prevent a woman’s safety. In 1995, five issues of the law and policy were prioritized as critical roadblocks. First, the lack of jurisdiction over non-Indians committing violence against Native women—partially resolved by the VAWA 2013 and 2024. Second, the sentencing limitation on Tribal courts to impose a maximum of one year per offense—resolved by the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act in 2010. Third, the failure of the U.S. to provide adequate federal funds to enhance the tribal response, specifically safety centers for Native women—partially resolved by amendments increasing the tribal funding levels under the VAWA 2005 and the Victims of Crime Act. Fourth, strengthening the federal-Tribal response—partially resolved by creation of the Tribal Law and Order Act Commission. Fith, Tribal access to the National Criminal Justice Databases—resolved by the creation of the VAWA 2013 Tribal Access Program.

All five issues were raised consistently, beginning with the amendments proposed to VAWA 2000, and lacked congressional support for inclusion in the draft VAWA. However, through grassroots organizing efforts, this opposition changed over time to support in 2005, 2013 and 2022.

In addition, the issue of the United States fulfilling its federal trust responsibility to Indian Nations and the safety of Native women while ongoing was significantly improved by raising the percentage of funds dedicated to Indian Tribes under specific VAWA grant programs beginning in 2005. The funding level was lifted from the initial 3% to 10%, creating a new standard of allocating resources to address specific issues under VAWA and subsequently impacting other federal grant programs.

Amicus Briefs to the Supreme Court of the United States: After the passage of VAWA 2013 restoring partial jurisdiction over non-Indians, it became clear that winning legal victories also required defending legal victories. The NIWRC then launched the VAWA Sovereignty Initiative to protect VAWA 2013. The amicus briefs filed reflect the reality of Native women under the U.S. government. These briefs are the Indigenous position on essential legal issues under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Restoration provides space for this initiative and for each amicus brief filed.

In summary, since its birth in 2004, Restoration consistently supported the movement’s growth by providing a political and Indigenous worldview for addressing violence against Indigenous women. It offered a space to understand the political analysis of the twists and turns, advances and setbacks, of injustices against Native women and proposed reforms to correct them. The movement and Restoration remained as new staff and newly elected officials came and went from federal agencies and from Congress. When a new administration asked, “What issues to address?” the general answer was the documented, decades-long list of foundational issues called for from the pages of Restoration. All the major legal obstacles identified in the mid-1990s were amended. While more is needed, these changes highlight the importance of political clarity in tearing down the walls of ignorance and injustice. Since its beginning, Restoration’s life carried the belief of the “right of Native women, as Native women, to live free of violence.”

Where do we go in the next 20 years? What exact reforms, laws, and policies need to be changed? How do we continue to inform, communicate, and provide the political will through Restoration to move mountains, effect systemic change, and restore respect for Indigenous women? How do we develop a strategy to understand and address intimate partner abuse, sexual violence, and sex trafficking of our Two-Spirit and LGBTQ+ relatives? How will the next generation of advocates honor this legacy and deepen the restoration of Indigenous women’s safety to address systemic roadblocks? How will we support Native Hawaiian advocates as they organize to develop their specific Indigenous grassroots response? 

  1. Restoration Magazine: Volume 1, Issue 1. February 2004.
  2. Id.
  3. Id.
  4. ClanStarVideos. (2014, July). Beyond the Shelter Doors with Tillie Black Bear. YouTube:
  5. Brief of Amici Curiae National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and 104 Additional Organizations, p. 20.
  6. City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation, 544 U.S. 197 (2005).
  7. Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the “Doctrine of Discovery.”
  8. Memorialized in February 2014 Restoration Magazine, "SCIA Oversight Hearing: Supporting Local Control, Removing Barriers in VAWA 2013.”
  9. “Culture is our Best Protective Factor and Healing Practice,” Restoration, Vol. 18, Issue 2, at 20 (June 2021).