We are a group of white people in Maine who care about the injustice of failing to fully implement the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA. The status quo that forces crimes perpetrated on women in Wabanaki communities to be tried in state court rather than in tribal court is dangerous to Maine Wabanaki women. Going to court is often a risk for victims of domestic violence; the violence often escalates. In going to court, the victim has to trust that the court will protect her. Nationally, that has not been the case for Native women, which is why VAWA was reauthorized to include the option for tribes to prosecute cases of domestic violence in their tribal courts.
Consider the impact on Native women who are afraid to bring their cases to state court. We ask readers to put themselves in the shoes of women who are not yet protected by this act, which has had such a positive effect for many U.S. women. It is a travesty that this protection does not extend to all Maine women.
Sen. Susan Collins applauded the creation of VAWA at the 2013 signing ceremony — in photos of the occasion, she can be seen over Vice President Joe Biden’s left shoulder. The bill created at that time, however, cannot touch the lives of Wabanaki women in Maine whose assailants are not Native. This is because of the way the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980 fails to ensure parallel treatment of Maine Wabanaki tribal people in the implementation of federal laws affecting Native American people, unless Maine Wabanaki tribal people are explicitly named in the legislation. This was not the case in the 2013 VAWA legislation. To make it possible for Wabanaki women to bring their abusers to tribal court by federal law, Congress will need to pass an additional bill specifically to include the names of the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe in the benefits of VAWA.
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has not yet moved to implement VAWA in Maine. Her position is that as attorney general she cannot take steps to implement this important law in Maine as it has been implemented across the nation because of the limitations of the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act. We encourage Mills to facilitate the implementation of VAWA for all Maine women by bringing together the parties who could work to find solutions to the conflicts and ambiguities of the Indian Land Claims Settlement Act. When that act was implemented, a special group called the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, was formed to work on the problems that everyone knew were in that piece of legislation.
A 2011 executive order by Gov. Paul LePage declared the relationship between the state and the tribes was between that of sovereign equals and stated the tribes would be included when discussing legal and legislative matters affecting them. When he rescinded that executive order in 2015, it called into question the state’s willingness and ability to work with the Wabanaki people on matters relating to them
We understand there may be resistance by some Maine constituencies to the implementation of VAWA on behalf of tribal communities, and perhaps white people’s fear stems from the way Native people have historically been treated in Maine state courts. It may be that white people are afraid to be prosecuted in tribal courts, imagining they would be treated unfairly if their case came to a tribal court rather than to a state court. But justice will be served in tribal courts. Tribal courts are required to take very specific steps to preserve the rights of Mainers accused of crimes against Wabanaki women — and of the women themselves. Tribal courts must preserve the defendant’s right to a trial by an impartial jury drawn from a fair cross-section of the community, not systematically excluding “any distinctive group in the community, including non-Indians” and preserving “all other rights whose protection is necessary under the Constitution of the United States,” as specified in the Indian Civil Rights Act.
As Mainers, we want our legislators at the federal and state levels to work on VAWA for us because it matters to us that all Maine women be protected from the consequences of assault and violence. The celebration in which Collins participated has not truly reached the Wabanaki women of Maine. But we want to go forward into a future when we live together without feeling guilty or afraid, in which we are working together to keep Wabanaki women and all Maine women safe. Sens. Collins and Angus King, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin, and Mills can help make that happen.
Kati Corlew is an assistant professor of psychology at University of Maine at Augusta and lives in Hampden. Margo Lukens is a professor of English at the University of Maine and lives in Orono. Barbara Blazej of Dixmont and Doug Cushman of Bangor also contributed to this OpEd.