Fifth Convening of the Trilateral Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls

By Caroline LaPorte, Immediate Descendant of the Little River Band Of Ottawa Indians, Director, STTARS Indigenous Safe Housing Center

Creator’s Law and Our Inherent Rights

Canada hosted the Fifth Trilateral Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls in September. The current workgroup members from the United States are Nicole Matthews (Executive Director, MIWSAC), Dawn Stover (Executive Director, ATCEV), Whitney Gravelle (President, Bay Mills Indian Community), Dr. Diane Gout (Executive Director, Gray O.A.K., LLC), Mary Kathryn Nagle (General Counsel to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center), Justice Anne McKeig (Associate Justice, Minnesota State Supreme Court), Angel Charley (Executive Director, Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women), Erica Pinto (Chairwoman, Jamul Indian Village), Shanna Parker (CEO, Angels Go To Work), Christina Love (Senior Specialist, Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault), Tami Truett Jerue (Executive Director, AKNWRC) and Caroline LaPorte (Director of STTARS Indigenous Safe Housing Center and Associate Judge, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians). Nicole, Dawn, Christina, Shanna, Diane, and I traveled to Ottawa for the in-person event. 


Trilateral Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls Members from the U.S. with federal officials. Seated from left to right Nicole Matthews and Shanna Parker. Standing from left to right, Miranda Baxter, Caroline LaPorte, Rosie Hidalgo, Dawn Stover, and Diane Gout. / Photo courtesy of Caroline LaPorte

The Trilateral Working Group (WG) is a convening between the United States, Mexico, and Canada that was created as an outcome of the North American Leaders’ Summit (2016). The WG is an affirmation of each Country’s commitment to addressing gender-based violence impacting Indigenous women, girls, Two-spirit, and gender-diverse individuals. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland, Office on Violence Against Women Director Rosie Hidalgo, and Elizabeth Reese from the White House Domestic Policy Council were present and represented the United States Government. 

For the Fifth Convening, workgroup members were asked to think about four specific event concepts and themes: 

  • Human trafficking (including root causes and early intervention/prevention).
  • Leadership development of Indigenous women, young women, girls, and Two-spirit and gender-diverse peoples.
  • Data collection (data tracking and the need for the development of a tool/mechanism for MMIWG and human trafficking of Indigenous women and girls). 
  • Access to Justice (including culturally respective practices).

The meeting in Ottawa focused on human trafficking and access to justice. 

During the first day of the Fifth Convening, the Indigenous women leaders and the federal counterparts met separately in two distinct groups. We first spent time reviewing and strengthening the terms of reference. In particular, we looked at adding the acknowledgment of state and political violence, the legal and fiduciary obligations of our respective colonial governments, of being inclusive towards gender-diverse and Two-spirit relatives, and calls for accountability and action on the part of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. During this discussion, Indigenous women leaders were frustrated by the continued use of the words “stakeholders” and “partners,” much preferring the term “rightsholders.” Additionally, the discussion focused heavily on Creator’s law—our inherent rights—and the need to exist outside of the government’s containers for us as Indigenous peoples. 

Our meeting resulted in the following questions that we raised before the United States, Canada, and Mexico:

  1. Are the three key deliverables from the terms of reference still valid?
  2. What is the actual coordination between the governments and the rightsholders (the Indigenous women)?
  3. What can be done to ensure continuity of the workgroup?
  4. How will colonial governments be accountable to us? 

“We need to help our colonial counterparts understand our medicine, our law. We are taught to share and we are taught to care for those around us. Those are our values. All Indigenous peoples have that in common,” said Gerri Sharpe, Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada.

Working Group members shared the following with the government officials present: 

  • Need to deepen our relationship towards reconciliation/ need to see progress.
  • Must honor and recognize our members’ distinct cultural and gender identities.
  • Principles of engagement could be developed and formally recognized.
  • Equal voice.
  • Must have adequate/equitable financial support to participate meaningfully.
  • Identify and monitor successes.
  • We need cohesive deliverables/formal work plan. 
  • Need to move beyond trauma-informed (to center cultural identity).
  • Critical that we focus on root causes.
  • We are not vulnerable. We are targeted. 
  • Human rights framing needs to be strengthened to include duty, due diligence, and state/political violence. 
  • When governments change, there is no continuity. We need structure and ensuring the continuation of this workgroup.
  • Agenda should be built by the Indigenous women.
  • Framework of rights needs to talk about/address/acknowledge the violence that accompanies it.
  • Free trade impacts need to be considered.
  • Need mechanisms for prevention.
  • Workgroup members are frustrated by the regurgitation of the same discussion. 
  • Being uprooted from land impacts everyone. 
  • Violence against children must be centered.
  • We must teach empathy. 
  • Tension between traditional economies and capitalism (how can we support traditional economies).
  • Lack of adequate resources.
  • Balance of power remains an issue.
  • Need timelines with action.
  • The US and Canada have similar legal/fiduciary responsibilities. 
  • Change the partnership/stakeholder language (we are nations/rightsholders).
  • Technology is impacting the role of culture in many communities in detrimental ways.
  • Creator’s law is our law. 

“There have been a lot of conversations today about human rights and human rights framing, which, of course, ideally centers on self-determination principles. And I want to start today by recognizing our Nationhood, as there are 576 federally recognized tribes in the United States…all of whom are sovereign…and all of whom are owed the legal and fiduciary duties of the federal government via the trust responsibility and relationship that has been memorialized in treaties, in Article 1 section 8 of the US Constitution, in Supreme Court Precedent, and as elder Commanda reminded us yesterday, originates and continues in each of us,” said Caroline LaPorte, STTARS.

“Social and economic inequities must be resolved. Rates of poverty, food insecurity, severe housing and infrastructure gaps, and the policies that uphold them need to be rectified. We do not have shelters and transitional homes. Many Inuit have nowhere to turn if they are fleeing family violence…The Crown-Indigenous partnership committee has been able to come to some concrete things we can work on together…so let’s run in unison. Let’s run in the right direction. Let’s run following Indigenous women, leaders, and girls,” said Aluki Koteirk, Nanavut Tunngavik, Inc.

“A water reservoir was created in our territory, so we were removed from Oaxaca and placed in Veracruz. When you are uprooted, think about a tree…if a tree is forty, fifty, sixty years old, if you move it, what happens to that tree? That tree is us. Many of our senior women cried. They miss the rivers, the mountains. Development caused the death of our past. Often the cruelest way of violence is the taking of who you are”—Guadalupe Galvan, Pueblo Chinanteco.

Nicole Matthews, and Shanna Parker provided testimony specifically relating to human trafficking, and Christina Love and Caroline LaPorte provided testimony regarding access to justice. We focused on what was working: Policies based on self-determination, policies and programs that uphold and center survivor autonomy, and increased access to funding. We provided that self-determination was the best approach because we have our own law, Creator’s law, we have our own values and our own ways of being and knowing, and because culture is the core of prevention. Focusing on what was not working, members turned towards the current composition of the Supreme Court; how access to justice for thinktanks like the Goldwater Institute or the Heritage Foundation is high while access to justice for survivors, Tribal Nations, and advocates is seriously under-resourced; the many ways in which empire is entrenched; and how the federal government refuses to meet peoples’ basic needs. 

STTARS specifically recommended the following in writing: 

  • Ensure a full Oliphant fix.
  • Ensure increased Tribal access to NCIC. 
  • Codify Morton v. Mancari.
  • Indian law should be bar-tested. 
  • Funding needs to be available for survivors to have access to legal services. 
  • Indian Country needs a tax base.
  • Consistent access to SANE and SART.
  • Separate victim advocate programs from law enforcement (should not be housed together).
  • Economic impacts on survivors need to be prioritized (includes child support concerns/enforcement). 

Housing and Shelter

  • VAWA Section 605 (see text box). Needs full consultation 
  • Ensure fulfillment of the VAWA Housing Director position
  • Expand allowable uses of VOCA dollars to include construction for programs/shelter
  • Increased funding for transportation vouchers
  • Increased substance abuse supports 
  • Legislators should refrain from enacting laws that criminalize homelessness 
  • Increased funding for transitional housing in Indian Country
  • Funding for housing/DV advocates
  • Funding for housing navigators
  • Funding for legal advocacy
  • Funding for financial assistance programs 
  • Increased funding for project-based vouchers 
  • Remove artificial rules (credit checks should not be a bar to housing/shelter access) 
  • Rent control/cancellation
  • Flexible funding for survivors/programs

This resource is made possible by grant #90EV0537, from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Family and Youth Services Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.