VAWA: An Admission of Defeat for Native Men

By Vince Rinehart

A nation is never conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.
-Cheyenne saying

The recent spat between Democrats and Republicans over the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) highlights where we Native peoples stand in contemporary American politics. The 18 year old VAWA is up for renewal, and the hangup is over new provisions that would expand protections to particular groups deemed vulnerable to attack, including Native women.

Huffington Post reports:

It gives tribal courts limited jurisdiction to oversee domestic violence offenses committed against Native American women by non-Native American men on tribal lands. Currently, federal and state law enforcement have jurisdiction over domestic violence on tribal lands, but in many cases, they are hours away and lack the resources to respond to those cases. Tribal courts, meanwhile, are on site and familiar with tribal laws, but lack the jurisdiction to address domestic violence on tribal lands when it is carried out by a non-Native American individual.

Since when does it take an Act of Congress to protect Native women from outsiders? Where have the warriors gone? On the surface, this squabble over jurisdiction looks like any other liberal versus conservative battleground with Native interests being represented by Democrats. But a deeper look at the situation reveals that we are indeed defeated Nations. We have joined the coalition of minority interest groups represented by the Democratic party, but this comes at the cost of our sovereignty and self determination. What free Tribal Nation must appeal to a higher authority than itself for the permission to protect it’s own women? Our men should be ashamed for sitting by idly as their sisters, daughters and mothers are violated. But what choice do they have in the face of the omnipresent US Government and it’s insistence on enforcing it’s laws and defining it’s jurisdiction as it sees fit?

For a clearer picture, we must look to our history and what we have become over time. We are no longer fierce warrior-tribes, battling for independence, laying down our enemies and driving out intruders from our lands. A major component of our defeat at the hands of the United States was the surrender of our warrior culture and the disbanding of our traditional organizational structure of autonomous tribes, bands, clans and villages. At one point in our history, our tribal law consisted of a set of social norms that were, for the most part, enforced through our culture and our tight knit communities. Where that failed, or where an outside entity was involved, we relied on a system of restitution overseen by trusted and wise tribal elders and leaders. Backing up the authority of these respected leaders were young braves who were willing and able to enforce the will of their community. This truly indigenous, tribal form of self governance is notoriously difficult to control or co-opt, because no single individual or even group of individuals commands it. It is a fluid structure defined by it’s decentralized nature; a polycentric system of governance. History books are filled with instances where the US Government negotiated treaties with colorful headmen, only to find that the headman’s authority extended only as far as people were willing to follow his lead. In many cases, a decree, settlement or treaty was simply ignored by those tribal members who disagreed with it; which sometimes meant that an entire band would give a collective shrug of their shoulders at the most recent treaty and keep fighting as before.

Obviously, this system was broken upon our defeat. The State has supplanted our systems with a “tribal” bureaucracy that mirrors western style systems of governance. These are systems that are “tribal” in name only. Lip service is paid to traditional values, while western educated judges sit in courtrooms following procedures that trace their roots back to English common law. Uniformed lawmen enforce the rules that are, simply put, alien to our indigenous way of life. All funding and legitimacy for our tribal court system flows from Washington D.C.. This is a colonial system that ensures that our people do not get in the way when our lands and resources are needed by the Empire.

So when our Native women experience appalling rates of sexual assault in our communities, to whom do we turn? To our traditional systems of self governance? Our clans? Bands? Elders and warriors? No, we go hat in hand to the Democrats to ask for permission for our colonial system of “tribal” law to have jurisdiction over our ancestral lands and people! What a bunch of horseshit. It’s no surprise to see our young men drinking themselves to death and killing one another. They have been robbed of their manhood and sacred duty to protect their land. The alternative is to spend their lives building and maintaining the system that has robbed them of everything. No wonder our women’s hearts are on the ground; victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse at the hands of outsiders and even their own men, who are supposed to be protecting and honoring them; holding them on high as mothers, sisters and daughters of their people. Our Nations are defeated.

I was recently asked by a non-Native: why are Native communities so destitute? Poor? Drug and alcohol infested? My answer is that we are a conquered people. There is no honor in succeeding in the white world, which has broken us. Instead, we wait. We wait for our time to come again. We wait for the warrior spirit to come back. We will know that time has come when we stop asking our conquerors for permission, and start building our Tribal Nations again; on our own backs.

This article also appears at Attack The System.

About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
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4 Responses to VAWA: An Admission of Defeat for Native Men

  1. Vince,

    Very good article. Gunalchéehs. I mostly agree with it. The only question I have would be what can we do now? I’m planning for the long term, and that is mostly centered around revitalizing the language. That’s the centrifugal force that makes everything else more achievable, by putting us into “the thought world of the ancestors,” as Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley constantly reminded people. But we also have work to do now. If there was a viable way to incorporate non-institutional tribal law right now, I’d sign up, right away. They did it in Hoonah some years ago. They dealt with their problems and didn’t need the US law system. But they had Elders fully immersed in the traditions and language, Elders who knew how to be the Ghuwakaan, the Deer, and how to have a Ghuwakaan ceremony. We can still do that, but we need to organize and rebuild the knowledge. That takes some time. In the meantime, what do we say to the woman today who is brutalized? I think that, for now, VAWA can help.

    I don’t think we’re conquered. We have problems, but hey, I’m pretty happy to be dealing with these problems while being blessed with this community.

    Gunalchéesh, húnxhw,
    Khaagwáask’– Ishmael Hope

    • Vince says:

      Gunalchéesh, kéek’ (hope that was the right word!) I agree. The power in Indian Country today, right now, is in the US court system; so VAWA will indeed help with jurisdictional disputes.

      This article is a shot across the bow for young men; potential warriors. Not everyone is going to come to the culture and Native way of life through the same path. Growing up in Juneau and Taos I saw a lot of lost young men following the gangster lifestyle. My time since then in other Native communities has shown me the same. These are youngsters who would have, at one time, been shown the proper way to be hard men for their tribe, village, clan or band by older men, perhaps clan uncles, with the cultural knowledge to direct that energy. They would have been nurtured by their mother, aunties and grandmothers. This is for them; who may not have had that. This is a slap in the face for them to wake up. Your clan is your gang, and your clan comes to you from your sacred mother. Protect her. Seek out guidance. Find your culture.

      Now these young men may never read this article, but people like you and I will; and maybe we will talk to them.

  2. Aaá. Gunalchéesh. That reminds me of something Paul Marks– Khinkaduneek recently told me. There was a Tlingit dance practice. The instructor told them to “act like warriors. Never turn your back to anyone.” And Paul thought, gee, they’re dancing for their grandparents! Sure, there was a warrior spirit, but the knowledgeable Elders often focused more on the peaceful side, the spiritual side, and humor! Also, was and peace was dealt with very delicately, with great diplomatic intelligence. I see that we can start with a few highly motivated people who learn the old ways, especially the language, and then those people can begin to change the situation, by creating immersion schools, tribal colleges, and developing sustainable, tribal economic models based on Native ways of knowing. Gunalchéesh.

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