After months of partisan bickering, Congress finally passed the Violence Against Women Act, which President Obama has signed into law. This will provide significant protection for women from crimes of domestic violence, particularly women living on Indian reservations. Passage of this legislation also shows that there still are leaders like our Congressman Greg Walden who are willing to put the interests of their constituents first.
The need for the VAWA is simple; 39 percent of American Indian women will be subjected to domestic violence in their lifetimes and non-Indians commit 88 percent of all violent crimes against Native women. Reservation-based tribes such as Warm Springs and Umatilla in Eastern Oregon are unable to adequately deal with non-Indian acts of domestic violence committed on their reservations. Native victims of domestic violence at the hands of non-Indians would have to seek assistance from federal law enforcement and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Portland for prosecution. And the court hearings would be in Portland rather than locally. As a result, crimes of domestic violence on the Warm Springs Reservation are under-reported to police and federal prosecutors. Without local access to justice for victims of violence, perpetrators will continue to act without consequences, and the cycle of violence goes unbroken.
To illustrate, statistics from the Warm Springs Victims of Crimes Services show that in the past several years, that office has handled nearly three dozen cases of non-Indians committing criminal acts of domestic violence — a disturbing number for a reservation of 5,000 people. Yet, not a single case resulted in a federal court prosecution. What happened to the perpetrators in these cases? What happened to the victims?
Congress had to act to close this legal loophole, allowing tribal courts the ability to prosecute crimes of domestic violence committed on the Reservation by non-Indians. Unfortunately, partisan and ideological gridlock delayed passage of the VAWA last year. The Senate passed a measure backed by Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, but it stalled in the House. The Warm Springs Tribe turned to Walden for help. Walden is both a high-ranking member of his party’s leadership structure as well as a fundamentally pragmatic legislator who lives and breathes the interests of his constituents in Central Oregon.
Over the course of several months, Walden and his staff worked closely with Oregon’s tribes to understand the needs of domestic violence victims in Indian Country. He was committed to finding a solution that would give Native women access to justice and ensure Constitutional protections for those accused of violence — all while garnering enough votes for congressional passage.
When the U.S. House of Representatives voted on VAWA late last month, Walden stayed true to the interests of his congressional district, where access to justice for Native women is a unique problem. Leaders from both parties joined together and passed a landmark piece of legislation that the President recently signed into law.
On behalf of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, I am deeply grateful for and proud of Walden’s leadership. He reminded us all that the safety of women is not a partisan issue. All of us living in Walden’s congressional district, Indian and non-Indian, Republican and Democrat, should feel lucky to have such a hard-working, solution-oriented person representing our interests in the nation’s capitol.