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Violence Against Women Act gives new powers to tribal courts

CASS LAKE – For perpetrators of violence against Native American women, tribal lands will no longer offer a haven for victimization.

But a provision of an enhanced renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, passed by the U.S. House Thursday, is only the first step in protecting a population that is ravaged by domestic violence and stunned by the number of sexual assaults.

One in three Native women will be raped in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, compared to one in five for the population as a whole.

“Getting victims to come forward. … we struggle with getting them to come in,” said Diane Bohn, who along with Kathy McBride, a sexual assault nurse, works for the Indian Health Service at Cass Lake Hospital. “Most let us do the rape kits, but intimidation is huge. They don’t even realize that was rape.”

Bohn and McBride, along with Beltrami District Judge Paul Benshoof, Cass County Assistant Attorney Jeanine Brand, Beltrami County Domestic Violence Court Coordinator Deb Miller and a few members of the public engaged in a discussion of violence toward women on Native lands.

In a room at Cass Lake High School Thursday night, the group watched an eye-opening film produced in 2010 titled “Rape on the Reservation.”

The documentary portrays a society in which violence against women is not only accepted, but inherent.

“That story could have been told about this reservation,” Bohn said.

Thursday marked the end of a year-long battle over the act, which brought not just Native women, but gays, lesbians and undocumented immigrants under the protective umbrella of programs funded by the original Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994.

It was a battle that shouldn’t have been, according to Suzanne Koepplinger, Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.

“It was sort of cherry picking who the right sort of victim might be,” she said. “The rate of violence against Native women is off the charts, and yet somehow, they were being pulled out of protection from the federal government.”

Not only are Native women more susceptible to violence, they are overwhelmingly abused by non-Native men.

“Nationally, 86 percent of crimes against Native women are committed by non-Natives,” Koepplinger said. “This means they have one more layer of protection. It means one more step toward justice.”

Much of the Republican opposition to the act, which passed the GOP-held House by a vote of 286 to 138, centered on the constitutionality of non-Natives being tried in tribal courts. Led, in part, by Sen. Chuck Grassley R-Iowa, some Republicans argued that a non-Native would be at a disadvantage in tribal courts, because juries made up of Natives would not be representative of a defendant’s peers.

Benshoof responded to that critique with a view from his bench.

“It’s interesting to see the shoe on the other foot: ‘how would a white man feel in a native court,’” he said. “What do you think Indians think when they come into the Beltrami County courthouse and 11 out of the 12 jurors are white, the judge is white, the prosecutors are white, the bailiffs are white, the clerks of court are white? They deal with that every day they see me.”

But the problems faced by Native women don’t just exist in Cass Lake, Red Lake, Leech Lake or other Minnesota reservations.

They are nationwide.

“I grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona,” Roberta Williams said. “We still have those same issues with rape, with alcoholism, as the other reservations have.”

And while Koepplinger said she was “elated” with the passage of the act Thursday, work remained.

“The pile on my desk is still here,” she said. 

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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