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Violence Against Women Act could help tribes stem violence against Native American women

His first wife flung a chair at him, breaking a window. In return, CJ Doxtater straddled and punched her.

It was only when his second wife left him that Doxtater, an Oneida tribal member, began his long journey from an addict and abuser to an advocate fighting the kind of violence that plagued his own marriages.

Now an outreach coordinator for Madison-based End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, formerly the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Doxtater can see how he used physical violence to reinforce the emotional and psychological abuse he also heaped on his first two wives. He says he believed at the time that "violence was a tool that was okay for men to use -- to keep our women in line."

Native American women are more than twice as likely as African American or white women to experience sexual assault and domestic violence, according to studies (PDF) from the U.S. Department of Justice. One in three Native American women are raped in their lifetime.

Such crimes against Native women are often committed by non-Native perpetrators. Historically many of these assaults were not prosecuted because women did not come forward and because tribes did not have the legal authority to pursue charges. For these and other reasons, advocates turned their sights to the Violence Against Women Act to address violence within tribal communities and were relieved earlier this year when Congress finally signed off on its reauthorization.

"[This law is] relevant to my past, to how I got here, to my foundation," says Doxtater, who credits Alcoholics Anonymous, a tribal mentor and a men's support group for helping him change his violent ways. "But it's also relevant in my family, where I see domestic violence still happens, within our tribe. There's still a high rate. There's a lot of pain there."

'A safety and sovereignty issue'

The reauthorized act, which became law in March, provides funding and support for victims of stalking, rape and domestic violence and helps hold perpetrators responsible. Particularly important to the Native American community, it contains a new provision allowing tribes to prosecute non-Native Americans who commit a crime on a reservation. In Wisconsin, the state is responsible for prosecuting crimes -- including cases of sexual assault and abuse -- on most reservations.

While only one of the 11 tribes in Wisconsin, the Menominee Nation, has the criminal jurisdiction and law enforcement structures to use the new provision, it has inspired hope and set the stage for other tribes to develop them as well.

"Tribal advocates, Native American men and women, certainly understood this as a safety issue and a sovereignty issue and were united behind it," says Tony Gibart, policy development coordinator for End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, who lobbied for the bill in Washington, D.C., along with executive director Patti Segar.

"It's important to have that ability to protect your citizens," adds Martina Gauthier, a lower court tribal judge for the Menominee Nation.

Gauthier says it would take a couple of years to put the needed structures in place, and each tribe, as an independent nation, will choose if and when to do so.

The 2010 federal Tribal Law and Order Act offers some support for this and also increases coordination between tribes and federal, state and local law enforcement. Some individuals still fall through the gaps of tribal and non-tribal law enforcement, says Pam Johnson, a member of Lac Courte Oreilles and executive director of American Indians Against Abuse in Hayward, Wis.

"You may [reach a tribal officer] who's two weeks out of basic training for law enforcement, where they may say, 'call the county,'" says Johnson. "The county [says]...'you need to call the tribes.' Someone in need will hear from both sides, 'call the other.'"

Cultural values

Doxtater's first wife died of a congenital heart defect and his second left him for a shelter. He was never prosecuted for his abuse.

He says that was before the 1989 mandatory arrest law, which now requires law enforcement to intervene and arrest the aggressors in abusive situations.

"The attitude [before the mandatory arrest law] was that these kinds of incidences belong in the home," says Doxtater, adding that it was part of a philosophy to "not air dirty laundry outside the home."

Now nearly all Wisconsin tribes operate a civil justice system where such things as restraining orders can be authorized.

While tribes move to build these law enforcement systems, Doxtater is pursuing a different approach with End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin.

"I would like to affect cultural value systems. For me, that goes beyond a legal infrastructure," he says. "It goes to the core of our society. With effective value systems and accountability in place, I think domestic violence, sexual assault don't have anything to survive on."

Doxtater and a coworker have been facilitating leadership institutes for underserved populations, training Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics to become advocates who address domestic violence and sexual assault in their communities.

Doxtater says they discuss historical trauma, oppression and abuse and how these intersect with domestic violence.

"Each individual will choose where they'll need to grow, and we'll provide that," says Doxtater. "Our hope is that it coincides with our understanding and helps build a shared language and through that, shared goals to effect change."

He has begun working with tribes to improve how they collect and share data to better serve victims. Each tribe currently has its own program, and data sharing might promote continuity of services across tribes.

One other program Doxtater is excited about is a trauma-informed care initiative that connects victims with mental health support and other care providers.

Doxtater's work mirrors the change he made in his own life. Twenty years after his second wife left him, Doxtater married again. He calls his current relationship "my first human marriage."

And he sees progress in the Native American community as well.

"Things are getting better," says Doxtater. "At times it doesn't seem like it, but the hope is alive."

Nora G Hertel

Isthmus 08/29/13