Washington, DC —
The president of the National Congress of American Indians urged the House on Thursday to pass the Violence Against Women Act so Native Americans and Alaska Natives can “protect their own people and surrounding communities against brutality.”
Jefferson Keel’s appeal followed Senate passage on Tuesday of the act that continues to allow funding for domestic violence programs and victims support. The bill, which the Senate approved on a 78-22 vote, would allow American Indian courts to prosecute and sentence suspects in domestic violence cases who are not American Indians.
Keel made the remark in the State of the Indian Nations address at the Newseum in Washington. The annual address followed President Barack Obama’s delivery Tuesday of the State of the Union. Obama also urged the House to pass the Violence Against Women Act in his speech.
“There is nothing more important to tribal leaders than the safety and well-being of tribal citizens,” said Keel, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and its lieutenant governor.
House Republican leaders are working on their own version of the act, which expired in 2011.
Urgency for passage of the legislation is captured in the statistics that show high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence against Native American women and that almost 60 percent are married to men who are not Native American or Alaska Natives, Keel said. Such suspects in crimes can’t be prosecuted in tribal courts. Local authorities other than tribal officials often lack resources to respond to the crimes and federal authorities also have declined to prosecute many of the crimes, he said.
“Congress must allow tribes, like all governments, to protect their own people and surrounding communities from brutality,” Keel said to applause.
Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who now chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee following the retirement of former Sen. Daniel Akaka, echoed Keel’s appeal in her follow-up “response from Congress.”