Keeping Safe: Native Women Mobilize Their Own Coalition against Domestic Violence. (Action)
Smith, Andrea, Colorlines Magazine
Cindy Widell is the only domestic violence advocate for four Oklahoma tribes (Otoe, Ponca, Tonkawa, and Paw). In 2001, she received a call from two sisters who had survived years of domestic abuse at the hands of one of their boyfriends. They needed help to get their belongings out of their house. But in retaliation for her involvement, the boyfriend's family members stabbed Widell's son 11 times.
According to Widell and fellow domestic violence activist Jeannie Jones (Chicasaw), this kind of retaliation is not unusual. Widell's son recovered, but his attack was an extreme example of the obstacles they face in combating domestic violence. Widell and Jones have been threatened, followed by perpetrators, had their cars run of the road, and publicly slandered for their work. In small communities where everyone knows everyone, advocates cannot be anonymous.
Another domestic violence activist, Rose Mary Shaw (Osage), says tribes often function on a "good ole boy system." Shaw has to pressure tribes relentlessly to respond to domestic/sexual violence cases. "I just stay on it and stay on it and stay on it."
In 1999, Jones and Shaw helped found the first and only Native American state coalition against domestic violence in the country. The Oklahoma Native American Coalition brings together 12 tribes to stop domestic violence and sexual assault against Native American women and children. But as longtime activsts working on the issue have found, Native peoples face many unique challenges in combating domestic and sexual violence.
Dealing With the Feds
Because Indian tribes have a unique legal status as sovereign nations, they work primarily with the federal rather than state governments to provide services for their members. Most of the money tribes use to develop sexual and domestic violence programs come from funds specifically earmarked for tribal programs through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
But federal programs tend to impose one model on all tribes, which does not account for each tribe's specific needs. For instance, most of the training on domestic and sexual violence that federal agencies provide is geared toward states that have only one or two tribes with large reservation areas. Oklahoma tribes, by contrast, generally do not have reservations, and their land bases spread over several counties. They are forced to collaborate with state agencies to a much greater extent, which results in conflicts regarding federal, state, and tribal jurisdiction over domestic and sexual violence cases. Also, the development of culturally appropriate models for addressing violence is particularly challenging in a state that has 39 tribes whose diverse origins resulted from Indian removal policies in the 1800s.
Because tribes have jurisdiction over their lands, they must develop their own sexual and domestic violence tribal codes. However, federal policies interfere with their ability to develop the codes they want. Some tribes haven't even yet developed sexual assault codes, mistakenly thinking that the federal government will handle it.
Sexual assault is considered a major crime as defined by a 1994 law, so it comes under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The FBI generally investigates sexual assault cases, and the U.S. Attorney's office decides whether or not to prosecute them. The U.S. Attorney usually declines to prosecute 70 percent of all cases and rarely prosecutes sexual assault cases, particularly those involving alcohol. …