Restoring Respect for the First Women of this Land

February 2, 2011
by Terri Henry*

CHEROKEE, N.C. -- It was with great honor that my nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, hosted the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Ms. Rashida Manjoo.  Her visit to Cherokee was spurred by the concern that American Indian and Alaska Native women are victimized at more than double the rate of violence of any other population of women in the United States.  Fortunately, there is a growing global awareness of the voices of Native women calling for safety and justice. 

With great pride we welcomed Ms. Manjoo to the Qualla Boundary to listen to our community: people that respond to the medical needs, to the 911 calls, those that investigate and prosecute, and to the Cherokee Court where women seek justice in the hope that the violence will end.  While Cherokee does not have a perfect response to these crimes we are outraged by the rape or beating of any woman, and we are committed to increasing the safety of all women who reside within our tribal community.  Most importantly we understand Cherokee women have the right as citizens of the Eastern Band to the protection of their government. 

Like all Indian tribes we face the daunting task of overcoming complex social barriers that allow violence against our women to continue. Yet unlike state and federal governments, we as a tribal government face legal barriers to the protection of women. Since 1978 our tribal government, like all Indian nations, has been stripped of the authority to prosecute rapists and abusers that are non-Indians.  Further, federal law prevents our tribal court from adequately sentencing offenders to the same extent as state courts.  No matter how heinous the crime, tribal courts can only impose a maximum sentence of one year per offense, unless certain conditions are met, in which case the maximum sentence is three years.  Rape in the State of North Carolina carries a maximum penalty of 40 years, so for most tribal victims, a three year sentence is a far cry from equal justice under the law.

Ms. Manjoo’s visit provided the setting for our community to talk openly about our desire to ensure that women can live lives free from violence.  We came together to look deeper at its roots, and we understand that we must work harder – despite the legal obstacles – to create safety for women.  While the vast majority of Native women will never receive justice under the current laws of the United States we can offer women respect and acknowledge that violence is wrong and is antithetical to our tribal beliefs.  Legal reform often takes years, even decades, to occur and Native women do not have the luxury of time.  While the United States debates the law, more Native women are being victimized.  We as Indian nations, as tribal relatives, must find additional ways to protect women and deal with the monsters amongst us. 

In 1838, the United States forcibly rounded up thousands of Cherokees and marched them in the dead of winter from our homelands here in the east to Oklahoma.  Thousands died on the trail due to lack of food, clothing, shelter, and other horrific conditions endured during the march. Like other federal statues and policies toward Indians, the Removal Act legalized the deaths of thousands of Cherokee children, women, and men. As Cherokee people, we experience federal law and Supreme Court rulings differently than all other Americans.  As Indian nations and women, we also experience this epidemic of violence differently than all other Americans. 

It is our hope that Ms. Manjoo’s visit will shine a spot light on this crisis—one that compels the United States to not only acknowledge the cycle of violence against Native women but use its authority and resources to end it.   While bad men commit these heinous acts, it is bad law that prevents good people from saving lives and stopping the violence.  It is time for the United States to recognize that the violence will continue until it removes the legal barriers that tie the hands of tribal governments from protecting their women.  While we applaud the recent advances made by President Obama and Attorney General Holder, removal of these barriers requires Congress to act.  Given the daily toll on the lives of Native women we call upon the good-hearted justice loving people of America to not be blind to the reality that 1 of 3 American Indian women will be raped in their lifetime and that 3 of 4 will be physically assaulted.

It is upon us all to act and extend a hand to restore respect and safety for the first women of this land.


* Terri Henry is Councilwoman for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and co-chair of the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women.  She also serves on the board of the Indian Law Resource Center.