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Mohawk Tribal officials applaud passage of Violence Against Women Act

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MASSENA - Mohawk tribal officials say congressional passage of the Violence Against Women Act is an important step in putting an end to the epidemic of violence against Native American women.

The act, which received House approval Thursday, provides support for organizations that serve victims of domestic violence and stiffens federal penalties for such crimes. The expanded act reauthorized by the House also grants tribal courts the power to prosecute non-Indians alleged to have committed crimes, such as sexual assault and domestic abuse. Many contend the lack of prosecuting power for non-Indian perpetrators of such crimes is to blame for the high rate of abuse and rape among Native women.

St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Ron LaFrance Jr. commended federal lawmakers for passing the act, which he said was “500 years in the making,” alluding to what he suggested was long history of sex crimes against Native women, beginning with European settlers.

“We’ve been following this for a long time. We’re just glad that new measures in the (VAWA) give the tribal council new powers to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes against our women,” Mr. LaFrance said.

This aspect of the bill was initially criticized by some congressional Republicans, who raised concerns that a non-Indian may tried unfairly on a reservation, because the jury may be composed primarily of Native Americans.

Passage of the VAWA bill was praised by Randi R. Barreiro, an Akwesasne resident and co-founder of Konon:kwe Council, an Akwesasne-based advocacy group committed to the empowerment of area women.

“The passage of VAWA represents a tremendous advance for the safety of Native women and provides an equitable pathway for justice that has been absent for too long,” Ms. Barreiro said. “Native women are murdered at 10 times the national average and more than one in three will be raped in their lifetimes. These crimes are unacceptable.”

According to the New York Times report this week, the lack of adequate prosecuting power has made some reservations targets for sexual predators and 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men.

Mr. LaFrance said the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council reports any sex crimes it is made aware of to the Franklin County District Attorney’s Office, which then determines whether to prosecute the alleged perpetrator. He said he was “hopeful” the new power will increase the rate of prosecution among the perpetrators of sex crimes committed in tAkwesasne.

One tribal member raised concern about the additional expenses associated with more prosecutions. Charles J. “Chaz” Kader, clerk of the Men’s Council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse, said the VAWA a “could prove to be a double-edged sword” and that tribal courts should receive increases in federal funding comparable to the cost of additional prosecuting powers.

“The tribal court will have to do more, but they’ll need money (to do it),” Mr. Kader said. “The rubber hits the road when the funding is commensurate to the new law.”

Mr. Kader expressed concern grant funding for tribal courts, which he said is often scarce, and overcrowding in Franklin County’s correctional facilities might require the construction of a new jail in Akwesasne, should the passage of VAWA increase the number of persons convicted of crimes on the reservation. There may be some issue with implementation of the VAWA if it becomes an “unfunded mandate,” Mr. Kader said.

Despite the potential funding complications, Mr. Kader said the men’s council supported VAWA as a cure to the “shocking” rate of sex crimes among Native women. “It remains to be seen how it will all come together,” he said.

Mr. LaFrance said the tribal council isn’t as concerned with funding or complications in implementing the VAWA as it is with lowering rates of sex crimes on the reservation. “As this law takes effect, (those issues) would be the least of our concerns. Our main concern is the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes against our women,” he said.

The new powers and protections won’t apply to Akwesasne residents who on the so-called Canadian side of the transborder reservation.

“Our aboriginal relatives in Canada are fighting to save their sisters and daughters, who are abducted or murdered with outrageous frequency,” Ms. Barreiro said. “Hopefully, the attention around VAWA can help shine a light on their situation as well.”

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