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Native American Tribes Want To Close Loopholes In Violence Against Women Act

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Four out of 5 Native American women experience violence in their lives. This is in a report by the National Congress of American Indians. The Violence Against Women Act gave tribes greater powers to prosecute such crimes, and it's now up for reauthorization. But as Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards reports, tribes want to close some loopholes.

MELODIE EDWARDS, BYLINE: This last Thanksgiving night, Eastern Shoshoni member Jean Harris's life took a terrifying turn. Her Northern Arapaho boyfriend called to ask her to come pick him up at his parents' house. When she got there, he was waiting at the gate.

JEAN HARRIS: He said, babe, come give me a hug. I haven't seen you for a while. I'm going to grab my bag.

EDWARDS: So Harris got out of her car.

HARRIS: And as he opened the gate, people came out from behind the trees and started coming towards me. And all I could hear them saying was light her up. Let's kill that white expletive. I'm a half-breed.

EDWARDS: Harris says her boyfriend and his friends kicked her and hit her with bricks because she's only half Shoshoni. She suffered a skull fracture. Right away, Harris called the Bureau of Indian Affairs Police. So far, they've made no arrests in the case, and she says she's been attacked twice since then and lives in fear.

HARRIS: I know it's a long process, but it makes me feel like I don't matter. And I have to tell myself all the time, I do matter. I do matter.

EDWARDS: A poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 50 percent of Native Americans in majority native areas say that police and the courts have treated them or their family members unfairly. But now the Eastern Shoshoni tribe is working to make sure women like Harris do see justice.

LESLIE SHAKESPEARE: I remember being fresh out of the academy, thinking I could change the world and arrest everybody's problems away.

EDWARDS: As a police officer, Eastern Shoshoni member Leslie Shakespeare responded nightly to calls to address violence. And it touched his life, too. He often saw his own sister beaten and bruised.

SHAKESPEARE: And I remember asking her, why don't you call the police? She had stated, well, I did call before, and kind of gave me a smile and said nothing's going to happen.

EDWARDS: After that talk, Shakespeare never saw his sister again. She died under suspicious circumstances related to domestic violence. Her case never made it to court. Her abuser wasn't native. And at that time, tribes weren't legally allowed to prosecute nonnatives. So her case went to federal prosecutors, but they declined to pursue it. He says when tribes can't punish them, perpetrators aren't compelled to stop.

SHAKESPEARE: And so I think that's one of the things we wanted to get rid of as a sanctuary out here for individuals that perpetrate those crimes.

EDWARDS: Shakespeare decided to run for tribal council to help control the cycle of violence, but he says adopting the Violence Against Women Act hasn't been easy or cheap. It's involved hiring more attorneys and judges and paying for more prison beds. Those high costs have discouraged many tribes from signing on. Only a fraction of the country's tribes have adopted it. Caroline Laporte is with the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center. She says the act needs improvement. Tribes still can't prosecute those who assault children, and they can't take on cases where a stranger assaults a victim.

CAROLINE LAPORTE: That's a big loophole, and that's something that, I think, we're going to try to address this year hopefully with the new reauthorization.

EDWARDS: Laporte points to a new five-year report that shows when tribes are given more local control, they're successfully arresting and convicting perpetrators. She says there are two benefits.

LAPORTE: One, non-natives are now hearing, OK, I no longer can get away with this. And, two, Native women are hearing, OK, I can't be abused repeatedly without somebody coming to my assistance.

EDWARDS: That someone, Laporte says, should be the tribes themselves. For NPR News, I'm Melodie Edwards on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "THREE-TWO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.