NCAI Responds to Senator Grassley’s Video Comments on VAWA Tribal Provisions – “Fear Mongering” Must End

Published on Feb 22, 2013

Comments made by Iowa Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) about the tribal provisions of the Violence Against Women (VAWA) this week, are being labeled as “fear mongering” by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). In a letter to Senator Grassley NCAI ‘s Task Force on Violence Against Women called on the Senator to immediately retract his inflammatory claims made about the constitutional protections in the tribal provisions of VAWA.

In a video, which surfaced on Thursday, Grassley made inaccurate comments about VAWA’s tribal provisions to a group of his constituents in Indianola, Iowa at a town hall meeting on Wednesday. NCAI responded immediately on Thursday and sent Grassley the letter on Friday. Specifically, NCAI took issue with the senior Senator for mischaracterized the fairness of jury selection in the United States judicial system and tribal court system. The following is a transcript of Senator Grassley’s statement:

"One provision that non-Native Americans can be tried in tribal court. And why is that a big thing? Because of the constitutionality of it, for two reasons. One, you know how the law is, that if you have a jury, the jury is supposed to be a reflection of society. [...] So you get non-Indians, let me say to make it easy, you get non-Indians going into a reservation and violating a woman. They need to be prosecuted. They aren’t prosecuted. So the idea behind [VAWA] is we’ll try them in tribal court. But under the laws of our land, you got to have a jury that is a reflection of society as a whole, and on an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right? So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.” 

“Senator Grassley is wrong and it’s fear mongering at best. This video clearly shows the misinformed rhetoric and fear-based language being used by those who have an ill-conceived notion about the constitutionality of the tribal provisions, tribal courts, and the protections developed in VAWA to ensure victims and defendants are provided their constitutional rights. No American, Native Americans included, in pursuit of delivering justice for all should ever be denigrated in this way, it’s inexcusable,” said Juana Majel-Dixon, the First Vice President of NCAI and the Co-Chair of the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Women. “This comment makes it seem that a few Republicans are spending more energy protecting the bad guys than focused on delivering justice to our communities and women, including Native Americans. Common sense Republicans in the Senate and House need to step forward and put an end to any misinformation efforts and pass VAWA as passed overwhelmingly by the Senate.”

Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director of NCAI also addressed the Senator’s comments.

“The fact is, as Senator Grassley acknowledged, there is a serious problem with this issue of non-Natives coming on to tribal land and getting away with a crime, and something needs to be done to stop it. Yet, when the Senator had a chance to do so, he failed to vote with the 78 members of the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, who supported the constitutionally sound provisions of VAWA. These stubborn views are in the minority and they are holding America back from moving ahead,” concluded Pata. 

In the letter to Senator Grassley, NCAI’s Task Force on Violence Against Women outlined the details of the tribal provisions as outlined in the Senate bill, S.47, and addresses the concerns over the comments:

“This statement is an inaccurate portrayal on two levels.  From a legislative approach, it ignores the clear language in the Senate-passed bill, drafted by the Department of Justice, which mandates that fair and impartial juries be made available in these cases and that all juries not exclude any cross-section of the community, including non-Indians.  This clear language shows that to the degree you had any constitutional concerns about the fairness of the jury selection process, proponents of the bill, along with the Department of Justice, have had the same concerns and address it with this language.  Further, this language is directly in line with the general rule that jury pools will be selected in a manner that represent a fair cross-section of the community in which the crime was committed and the court convenes.  In some instances, off the reservation, this might mean an Indian defendant is tried by a predominantly all-white jury.  The law recognizes that this may be the case, but places confidence that each citizen’s dedication to his or her civic duties will prevail over any bias or unjust motivations.

This leads to the second concern, that this statement generally mischaracterizes tribal peoples as unable to administer justice in a fair and balanced manner like their non-Indian counterparts.  In other words, it presupposes that simply because there is a non-Indian in a tribal court, and an all-Indian jury or predominantly Indian jury, the court proceedings would inevitably result in an unfair trial.  Or, more simply, Indian jurors would not be able to look objectively at the facts of the case, the testimony of the witnesses, and the brevity of the outcome on the defendant’s liberty, and make fair and impartial judgments on the matter. 

As you know Senator, the United States is an extremely diverse land, and every tribal citizen is also a citizen of the United States that is familiar with our courts of justice, tribal and non-tribal alike, as well as our Nation’s overall founding principles of liberty.  Our school systems teach the same history lessons, and our laws and understandings of justice generally mirror the state and federal system.  As Indian people, we raise our children to be honorable and respectful in their actions, and to state that a tribal juror, carrying out his or her civic duties to their respective tribal government, would in some way lack the capacity to administer justice in a manner equitable to a non-Indian juror is simply offensive and not true.  Many, if not all, Indian tribes refer to themselves in their own language as ‘People’ – not Indians.  This concept of our underlying humanity has always been strong in tribal cultures, and tribal citizens are very capable of objective review of any matter in tribal court.

For these reasons, we respectfully ask that you retract these damaging statements and acknowledge that tribal jurors are U.S. citizens as well, and fully capable of administering justice in a fair and balanced manner.  Thank you for your time and consideration of this very sensitive issue.“  

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