The Violence Against Women Act Was Stalled In Congress. Rep. Deb Haaland Isn't Letting That Stop Her

'I feel hopeful, in a way, that women are speaking out more than they ever have'

Representative Debra Haaland doesn’t think the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) protects those who need it most — but she still has hope.

This past April, the House of Representatives voted to reauthorize the Act, which expired in February. Rep. Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico’s first congressional district, added two amendments to the bill, both of which would directly support Native women who live both on and off tribal land. One amendment extends support and resources to Native women who live in urban areas, while the other aims to strengthen data-sharing and communication between law-enforcement agencies, so that tribal agencies can better support their own without being hamstrung by federal government jurisdictions.

When it was first introduced in 1994, VAWA didn’t consider violence against women from a cultural or racial lens; that was later rectified when the bill was reauthorized in 2005, and further addressed when the 2013 bill redirected “culturally specific services” to better serve specific minority groups, including Native women.

They’re a group that desperately need support: Eighty-four percent of Native women have been subjected to violence in their lifetime, the National Institute of Justice reported, and, as Rep. Haaland pointed out to MTV News, women in some tribal communities are 10 times more likely to be murdered than the national average, according to a report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2008.

And the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women is made all the more urgent given that experts believe the numbers they do have undercounts the number of victims: According to the National Crime Information Center, over 5,700 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported as missing in 2016, but only 116 of those cases were logged. This inaction can be due to a number of reasons, including jurisdictional hurdles by different federal agencies and what victims' families feel is a lack of prioritization or care for their loved ones.

Yet while Haaland’s amendments would help close some of VAWA’s gaps in support for Native women, the bill is currently stalled at the Senate level, and senators on all sides of the aisle blame one other for its delay. Rather than idly waiting for her Congressional colleagues to do the jobs they were elected to do, however, Haaland is using this time to remind the country what is at stake for Native women.

On September 11, the congresswoman, who is Pueblo, joined tribal leaders, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and the National Congress of American Indians to commemorate the 25th anniversary of VAWA’s first passage. Shortly after, Haaland spoke with MTV News about the need to uplift Native women, the frustrations of VAWA not yet reaching the Senate floor, and why she still feels hopeful that the tides are finally turning for Native women and other survivors who speak up.

MTV News: Why was it important for you to highlight tribal leaders and Indigenous voices on the 25th anniversary of VAWA?

Rep. Debra Haaland: The Violence Against Women Act didn't have specific provisions for Indian country until 2013, which is really sad. It’s Native women who are the most vulnerable. Native women are 10 times more likely [to be the victims of sexual violence] than any other group of women in this country. And violence against native women is tied to the missing and murdered Indigenous women issue as well — we're at a high risk of being stolen, killed, assaulted, you name it. We have higher incidence of that across the country. And so for us to have these provisions in the Violence Against Women Act, it meant a tremendous amount.

MTV News: Now the bill is essentially being stalled by the Senate, who haven’t brought it to vote. How does it feel to be a part of this House of Representatives trying to push legislation through, only for the conversation to slow in other areas of government? 

Rep. Haaland: The way I look at this is that the House is doing what we were sent to Congress to do. This was a three-branch system of government in our country and Mitch McConnell has turned it into a two-branch system. He doesn't put anything out that he says the president doesn't support. And that's not the way it works.

The way it works is that we pass the legislation and the president signs off on it. If the president doesn't want to sign off, then it's on him. And right now, ... if this bill went to the Senate floor it would pass because I believe there are a lot of senators in our United States Senate who want to see women safer. They want to make sure that women are safer, that they are protected.

Because of Mitch McConnell, because of his horrible [habit of] putting politics ahead of the American people, it has not gotten to the floor. It's very frustrating to all of us. He himself got on TV and called himself the Grim Reaper, killing all the legislation that comes from the House. I just think it's a pathetic way for him to run the Senate. I think he should put the American people first, ahead of his own political future.

MTV News: To circle back to the ways in which the Violence Against Women Act largely failed Native women for years, when were you first made aware about the ways in which the act didn’t go far enough, or otherwise failed Indigenous women?

Rep. Haaland: I'll be honest with you: When I was working on campaigns, I was working so hard to make sure that I was electing candidates who I felt were good for Indian country and good for New Mexico, but I wasn't necessarily steeped in all of the policies and the laws. I'm an organizer. But I was made well aware of the push for this VAWA in 2012 because there were a lot of Native women out there advocating very heavily for this bill to pass. It’s just so important.

MTV News: What can you tell us about the ways in which you would like to see the act change the conversation about violence against women, and against Native women specifically? 

Rep. Haaland: I think the main thing with this bill is the fact that Indian tribes need to be able to prosecute sexual and violent offenders who assault women on Indian land. The fact that tribes were unable to prosecute people who were not tribal members in their tribal court has been a terrible thing because in Indian country, tribal courts can prosecute a misdemeanor but they can't prosecute felonies. There's a list of crimes that tribal courts can't prosecute, and trying to get the FBI to come into Indian country to investigate an offense is difficult.

There's not enough law enforcement to go around to protect women in Indian country. There's too many rural communities. If I were standing in the middle of the Navajo nation right now and tried to call for police because I was in fear of getting assaulted, I probably wouldn't be able to get cell phone service out there. There are challenges in seeing justice in Indian country and so many areas of our country. So if tribes have the opportunity to prosecute those crimes, that would mean the world to Native women across the country.

MTV News: That also ties into the Savannah's Act, which has also been roadblocked by Representative Bob Goodlatte.

Rep. Haaland: Savannah's Act is about data sharing. All the law enforcement agencies need to be able to contact each other. We need to be able to share data, and the jurisdictional issues are the things that stop us up. Because of certain Supreme Court cases a while back, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that tribes can't prosecute non-member or non-Native people.

At the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Hearing on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women last December, one of the witnesses talked about seeing her sister's sweater on the side of the road and alerting police and then going back three days later and the sweater's still there. Savannah Greywind, who was killed and her body thrown in a river and her baby cut out of her  — nobody heard about it for a week. There's so much that we need to ensure that tribal police have the resources and the training they need, that the FBI is caring about these crimes, that we can share enough data. Those are all issues that are important.

I also want to make sure that people also know that Native women in urban areas are also being assaulted at higher rates. So one of my amendments in VAWA would give them the resources they need, and victim support in state courts that they could use to help their cases as well.

MTV News: The statistics about the violence against Native women are just horrifying, but it can still feel like the epidemic is contained to smaller groups rather than a national conversation. From your vantage point, is progress being made, and are people picking up on just how severe this is?

Rep. Haaland: I think that in order to ensure that the public cares about an issue, the more we need to get it out there because if people don't know to care about this issue, they're not going to care about it. If there's more headlines on these issues, if there's more people writing about it, then there are more people who are apt to also care about it. So it's the type of thing that you need to get in front of people in order for them to pick up on how important this issue is.

MTV News: How do you think young people have contributed to the fight for visibility and justice?

Rep. Haaland: More than ever young folks are getting involved. Here in New Mexico, the Violence Against Native Women groups have hosted a number of vigils [for missing and murdered Indigenous women]. And I always see young people attending those. It just breaks my heart.

My mother was an extremely strong Pueblo woman. My grandmother was the same. I had strong women in my life. My aunties who were there for me every step of the way. We're a matrilineal society, as Pueblo women, and there are a lot of tribes across the country who are. And when you lose those women in your life, who are there to teach you and show you the ways that you could grow into a responsible, culturally cognizant adult, it's so hard. It's a terrible loss to so many families across this country and something that I'm working very hard to remedy.

MTV News: Where do you see the conversation about violence against women and specifically against Native women headed, both between tribes and with the federal government and our society at large?

Rep. Haaland: I mean, I'm going to keep talking about the fact that Mitch McConnell isn't doing anything, that he's sitting on the bill and putting his own feelings and thoughts and his own self ahead of the entire country. Until he puts that to a vote and until the president signs VAWA reauthorization into law, we're just back where we started from. So these are things, why I'm working extremely hard in this election to make sure that we elect people who actually care about the future of our country.

People can keep putting pressure on the senator, and on the president. Writing letters, showing up at their office, protesting. Just put pressure on him. I also want people to register to vote and vote in this upcoming election. This is the most important election of our lifetime and our voice is extremely important in our politics right now.

If we're not protecting our women and we're not protecting our girls and we're not protecting the most vulnerable people in this society, who are we as a country? So that's where I'm putting the conversation. Mitch McConnell needs to put this bill to a vote and he and the president need to sign it. And unless they do that, to me, they don't care about women. They don't care about the safety of women. And I think that's a very sad commentary for people who are leading this country.

MTV News: In a lot of ways, it’s past time to have a real reckoning about violence against women, and survivors’ voices feel more amplified than ever. How do you feel about where the conversation is right now?

Rep. Haaland: You know what? I feel hopeful, in a way, that women are speaking out more than they ever have. It's almost like they're putting the future of our country ahead of their own personal lives. Women are speaking out. They're talking more about it. And just with this issue with Brett Kavanaugh recently… It's not an easy thing to talk about your personal life in front of the entire world. But it's time for us to have a world where women aren't scared to go to work or to walk down the street. It's time for us to be truly equal.

This interview has been lightly edited for length.