Protecting women and children has always been a core value for the Cherokee people. With the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), we will be able to do even more to ensure families are safe.
VAWA first became the law of the land in 1994 and has been reauthorized multiple times since then, but it was allowed to expire in 2019. Many of the important protections contained in the law remain permanent, but the expiration means that important grant programs to prevent violence and sexual assault and support victims are not being funded. Reauthorization also creates an opportunity to improve the permanent provisions of the law.
The bill to reauthorize VAWA recently passed the U.S. House and will next be heard in the U.S. Senate. As the principal chief of the largest tribal government in America, I hope VAWA gets reauthorized as quickly as possible, because this law provides tribes with essential tools to curb violence on our reservation. The newest version of VAWA would expand the jurisdiction of tribal authorities over non-Indians who commit a certain violent or sexual crime in Indian Country. Cherokee Nation’s jurisdiction would expand beyond domestic violence offenses and into areas including crimes against children, stalking, intimidation, sexual assault and violence, human trafficking, and assaulting a law enforcement officer.
Today, there are 27 tribes, including the Cherokee Nation, that exercise special jurisdiction over certain non-Indians who commit domestic violence offences on tribal land. While the historic 2013 VAWA law made reservations, including Cherokee Nation’s, safer, there is a dire need to address additional gaps. More than half of all Indigenous women are subject to sexual violence in their lifetime and, for them, murder is the third-leading cause of death, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the rate even more. We know as more people stayed home to isolate from the virus, there was a dramatic surge in violence against women. Calls to our ONE FIRE domestic violence response service in the Cherokee Nation have increased by more than 25% in the past year, and the tribe is serving far more clients than originally expected in 2020 and 2021. Multiple clients have driven to the Cherokee Nation reservation from out of state, seeking help and refuge.
While ONE FIRE stands for Our Nation Ending Fear, Intimidation, Rape, and Endangerment, this name has another meaning that is rooted in our belief that Cherokees come from one fire, and that we are one people. ONE FIRE is the tribe’s “one stop shop” to aid survivors in their time of crisis with a robust offering of resources. Soon, ONE FIRE Victim Services is moving moved into new headquarters in Tahlequah that has more private space for personal counseling, so that survivors can more easily reach out for help without feeling stigmatized. We will also soon launch a new transitional living center in Adair County, because the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how critical it is for victims to have a place to call home following their stay in a domestic violence shelter. The apartments and small family homes will offer survivors supportive services for up to one year, if needed.
ONE FIRE is making a difference, but we must also have the federal law in place to better fund programs and close jurisdictional gaps. Cherokee Nation’s ONE FIRE office, our attorney general, and the Cherokee Marshal Service are working together to protect women and families. With VAWA reauthorization, we can take the next transformative step.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.