WASHINGTON (AP) — The president of the National Congress of American Indians urged the House on Thursday to pass the Violence Against Women Act so Native Americans and Alaska Natives can "protect their own people and surrounding communities against brutality."
Jefferson Keel's appeal followed Senate passage on Tuesday of the act that continues to allow funding for domestic violence programs and victims support. The bill, which the Senate approved on a 78-22 vote, would allow American Indian courts to prosecute and sentence suspects in domestic violence cases who are not American Indians.
Keel made the remark in the State of the Indian Nations address at the Newseum in Washington. The annual address followed President Barack Obama's delivery Tuesday of the State of the Union. Obama also urged the House to pass the Violence Against Women Act in his speech.
"There is nothing more important to tribal leaders than the safety and well-being of tribal citizens," said Keel, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma.
House Republican leaders are working on their own version of the act, which expired in 2011.
Urgency for passage of the legislation is captured in the statistics that show high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence against Native American women and that almost 60 percent are married to men who are not Native American or Alaska Natives, Keel said. Such suspects in crimes can't be prosecuted in tribal courts, local authorities other than tribal officials often lack resources to respond to the crimes and federal authorities also have declined to prosecute many of the crimes, he said.
"Congress must allow tribes, like all governments, to protect their own people and surrounding communities, from brutality," Keel said to applause.
Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who now chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee following the retirement of former Sen. Daniel Akaka, echoed Keel's appeal in her follow-up "response from Congress."
Keel delivered a largely upbeat message saying Indian Country has benefited from the Obama administration's commitment to tribal sovereignty. That has helped many tribes develop and manage their businesses and resources, "instead of managing poverty programs."
Despite the progress, a quarter of native people live in poverty and unemployment for some tribes can be double the national average, Keel said. Many tribes rely on government funding to operate health centers, schools and other programs and facilities. The National Congress of American Indians had hoped tribes would be exempt from automatic funding cuts should they go into effect in two weeks because of the ongoing budget fight in Congress. But it appears that is unlikely.
Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar outlined how the automatic cuts might affect Native Americans and Alaska Natives in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, Salazar said tribes would lose almost $130 million in funding from the department. Cuts would be made to funding for human services, law enforcement, schools, economic development and natural resources.
Some of the effects of the funding cuts are:
—Monthly general assistance payments to about 2,400 needy American Indians would stop.
—Bureau of Indian Affairs schools would have to reduce staff, services or the number of days in the school year.
—Funds that offset tribal management of federal programs would be reduced.
"Some people in some places are struggling already, it (the cuts) will worsen that," Keel said.
Also, the Education Department estimates a $60 million cut that would hit areas with high concentrations of government land, such as military bases and places with tribal land in federal trust. The money is in the Impact Aid fund aimed at areas with low federal tax revenue, such as towns with military bases. For example, Gallup-McKinley County Public Schools in New Mexico would lose almost $2 million. About 35 percent of the district's budget comes from Washington and some 6,700 of its schoolchildren live on Indian lands, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in his outline to the Senate Appropriations Committee of how the cuts might affect his agency's programs.
Also in the speech, Keel said tribes should play a role in shaping immigration legislation because nearly 40 tribal governments are located at or near the nation's borders with Mexico and Canada and have jurisdiction over some of the areas. He said tribes believe "the arc of justice must stretch from the first Americans, to the newest Americans."
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.
Online: National Congress of American Indians: http://www.ncai.org