Justice News

Associate Attorney General Tony West Delivers Remarks at the Violence Against Women Tribal Consultation
United States
Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thank you, Bea [Hanson] for that kind introduction and for all that you and your staff have done to make this consultation possible.

Good Morning!  I am so grateful to be with you all here today in Washington, and I welcome the many leaders of tribal nations, the many public safety and public health officials, and all of you who share a dedication to stopping the scourge of violence against women in our communities. 

I am pleased that Karol Mason, the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, is here this morning.   We are also fortunate to have two United States Attorneys who work tirelessly in Indian country join us today – Amanda Marshall for the District of Oregon and Tim Purdon for the District of North Dakota.  

I saw some of you yesterday at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, and I want to start by thanking the tribal leaders who extended their stay in D.C. to participate in today’s important government-to-government Violence Against Women Tribal Consultation. 

I also express my sincerest gratitude to those tribal leaders who made a special trip to D.C. specifically to attend today’s consultation.  I know many of you were inconvenienced by the decision to postpone the annual consultation due to the government shutdown, and it makes your presence here today all the more meaningful; thank you.

I would also like to thank my friend, Juana [Majel Dixon], for reminding us of the importance of the conversation we will be having today.

The shawls we see here represent the victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault; it is in their honor that we recognize Domestic Violence Awareness Month, even if a few weeks late. 

It’s been a little less than a year since many of us gathered together, on a much warmer day in Agua Caliente, California, for the National Indian Nations Conference organized by our own Office for Victims of Crime.   And at that conference you’ll remember we talked about victimization in Indian Country. 

And we said could not rest as long as crime rates in many tribal communities remained far above the national average.  That we could not rest as long as tribal members suffered disproportionately from violence or other criminal acts.  And that we could not rest – that we would not rest – as long as Native women were victims of domestic and sexual violence at rates that were the highest in the country. 

You’ll remember we heard the moving words of Deborah Parker, and we talked about how nearly half of all Native women experience some form of domestic violence or sexual assault by an intimate partner; how on some reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate that is 10 times the national average; and how across the entire Nation, both inside and outside Indian country, three more women would lose their lives to domestic violence homicide before the sun set that day, and everyday.

And you’ll remember that back then, when we said that, passing VAWA 2013 was, at that moment, unlikely.  There was disagreement in Congress.  Many wanted to strip that bill of the tribal jurisdictional provisions that would, for the first time in three decades, give tribes the ability to protect their people, primarily Indian women, from non-Indian perpetrators.

So we didn’t know, back then, how all of it was going to turn out.  But what we did know was that if we kept pushing, and kept working, and stayed focused and committed, we could do something to stop the violence against Indian women.

And thanks to your leadership, commitment, and hard work to make the impossible a reality we were able to pass VAWA 2013.

Now perpetrators of domestic and dating violence will be held accountable, whether they’re Indian or non-Indian, and countless Indian women will enjoy safer lives as a result.  Section 904 of VAWA 2013 recognizes the inherent power of “participating tribes” to exercise “special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction” over certain defendants, regardless of their Indian or non-Indian status, who commit acts of domestic violence or dating violence or violate certain protection orders in Indian country.

Now, as you know, that “special domestic violence jurisdiction” will be available to tribes on or after March 7, 2015.  But the law also provides for a voluntary “Pilot Project,” which will allow some tribes to begin exercising that jurisdiction early next year, if the Attorney General, after coordinating with the Secretary of the Interior and consulting with affected tribes, concludes that the tribe’s criminal justice system has adequate safeguards in place to protect defendants’ rights.
           As soon as VAWA was signed into law, Sam Hirsch from my office and other in the Justice Department’s leadership engaged in expedited but extensive consultation with tribal officials on how best to design the Pilot Project.  At least 39 tribes signed up as members of an Intertribal Technical-Assistance Working Group, to exchange views, information, and advice about how best to exercise this jurisdiction.  And the proposed procedures established for the Pilot Project reflect valuable input received from tribal officials during consultation.
Within the next few weeks, we expect to publish a final notice in the Federal Register, explaining precisely how tribes can apply to start exercising special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction.  By early next year, we anticipate that some tribes will commence prosecuting non-Indian abusers, for the first time in more than a third of a century.  This will be a huge step forward for tribal sovereignty and self-determination.  And it will, finally, provide tribes with a real opportunity to protect Native women from non-Indian abusers. 
But success always brings more challenge, and we know that the passage of VAWA is only the first step in the long journey of reducing domestic violence in Indian country; of curbing sexual assault against Native women; of stopping sexual trafficking of young Indian women and girls.

So all of us at the Justice Department, and in particular in our Office on Violence Against Women:  we renew our resolve to use every tool we have to work in partnership with each of you and with tribal governments to decrease the number of Native American women who fall victim to violence; to strengthen the capacity of tribal governments to respond to violent crimes; and to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their behavior.

That’s why last month, the Department announced more than 192 grants to 110 American Indian and Alaska Native nations, providing $90 million to enhance law enforcement practices, and sustain crime prevention and intervention efforts.  These grants cover everything from violence against women to juvenile justice to elder abuse, and more.
But we need to do even more.  And during today’s consultation we will be looking for your input on a whole range of issues, including:
• The proposed formula distribution concept for the OVW Grants to the Tribal Governments Program;

• Merging the Tribal Sexual Assault Services Program and Sexual Assault Services Culturally Specific Program into one solicitation that would request applications for both programs;

• And the best methods for outreach about the new Training and Technical Assistance resources to Tribal leadership and telemedicine center opportunity.

Let me close by sharing something very personal with you.  In my office there is a photograph, one of my favorites.  It was taken during the conference at Agua Caliente.  It’s a close-up of two people—Gertrude HeavyRunner and me.  We’re not looking at the camera, but in it she’s holding my face close to hers and she’s whispering to me.

And in that photograph I see the experience of a woman who has seen and lived through so much but who knows that no matter how dark the night, morning always comes.  I see the hope of a woman who, like all of you when the outcome of VAWA 2013 was so uncertain, perseveres.

And I see strength—strength I drew from her in that moment and on that day; the same strength we draw from all of you as we begin this consultation this morning.

Thank you again for your perseverance, for your strength, for your dedication, and thank you for being there this morning.

Updated September 17, 2014