Diane Millich, a Southern Ute tribal member and advocate for the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, shared her experience of domestic violence on the reservation at the Violence Against Native Women symposium in the fall of 2019 to stress the importance of support services and legislation for women.
VAWA was first passed in 1994 in order to improve the law enforcement and service programs for women who have experienced domestic violence, sexual violence, dating violence, sex trafficking, stalking, child violence and violence against law enforcement officers, as stated in the bill.
VAWA must be reauthorized every four years, and the reauthorization of 2018 has not passed through the Senate yet, according to the text of the bill. The bill passed in a vote in the House in April, but no further action has been taken.
Local support services such as the Sexual Assault Services Organziation and Milich’s Our Sister’s Keeper are provided funding under VAWA that could be affected if the bill is not reauthorized, Maura Dunco, the executive director for SASO, said.
At that time, Millich began an organization called Our Sister’s Keeper to share the voices of Native Women after she fought to reauthorize the bill in 2012 with the Title IX revision Safety for Indian Women, Millich said.
“I was so afraid to share and tell my story,” Millich said recalling the trauma she endured after her experiences of domestic violence.
Title IX is an addition to VAWA that gives tribal jurisdiction over assault crimes and provides Native American victims to press charges against non-native perpetrators on Native lands, Millich said.
Versions of the VAWA bill prior to 2012 included only limited protections for Native women.
There are still issues of staffing, prosecution and follow through of cases for Native women, and all women, Dunco said.
SASO works with Native women who experience assault as well as historical trauma, and the reauthorization of VAWA is important to ensuring Native women continue to receive the support they need, Dunco said.
“We work with clients on a day-to-day basis, and it is crisis focused, so what we do is really important to clients that we serve,” Dunco said.
Although SASO has not seen any immediate problems with funding as a result of the slow reauthorization of VAWA, these organizations still wonder how their funding will be affected in the near future, she said.
Failure to reauthorize VAWA gives the message that assault services are not important, Dunco said.
Reauthorization also allows a more efficient and immediate address of data for missing and murdered indigenous women, Millich said.
SASO works with the victim services of the Southern Ute tribe, and outreaches to tribal police, Kelsey Lansing, the cultural outreach coordinator for SASO said.
“We are always inviting law enforcement to our human trafficking trainings and all of our cultural events to provide education,” Lansing said.
Law enforcement in the Four Corners area practices “trauma informed care” with every SASO client and are aware of their communities, Lansing said.
“Sexual assault cases are some of the most challenging, judicially,” Dunco said.
Part of Millich’s attempts at spreading awareness for Native women included sharing her own survivor story.
Millich said she married into her second marriage to a non-native man after two months of dating and said that on the third day of their marriage her husband allegedly beat her. The man was not convicted of any assault charges, but was jailed on a different charge later.
Millich lived on the Southern Ute reservation when she started to experience domestic violence, she said. When it worsened she called the Southern Ute Police.
The tribal police could not arrest Millich’s husband of this alleged domestic violence on the reservation because he was a non-native, so the police would have to leave, she said.
The La Plata County police coul,md also not arrest him because they didn’t have jurisdiction on reservation land, Millich said.
On March 3, 2003 Millich left her abuser and moved into a safehouse, she said.
Millich worked for the Bureau of Land Management, and three days after she had moved into the safehouse, she alleged that he came to her work and attempted to shoot her and fired a missing shot.
The gunshot hit one of her coworkers in his shoulder when he jumped in front of the bullet, she said. The gunshot victim did not press charges and the man was not convicted for any crime related to that incident.
A few weeks later after fleeing to New Mexico, Millich’s then-husband was arrested, according to The Associated Press reports.
At the safehouse, there were five different officers from the Southern Ute police, Durango Police Department, La Plata County Sheriff's Office, the FBI, and Colorado State Patrol deciding who had jurisdiction over the case, Millich said.
“There were all these different maps on the back of the police cars, each officer was trying to figure out who has jurisdiction, what does the law read around that jurisdiction and how are we going to help Diane?,” she said.
There were no domestic violence crimes documented against him on the reservation land, and the shooting happened on federal land, so the two crimes would not be merged, she said.
Millich’s abuser would be prosecuted as a first-time offender and was convicted for an aggravated traffic offense, The Associated Press reported at the time.
The La Plata County 6th Judicial District oversaw the case, Millich said.
Because of her experiences, Millich was determined to join in the fight to ensure VAWA did not get signed without a revision to the Title IX Safety to Indian Women, she said.
Congress had plans to pass the bill without this resolution in 2012, she said.
Millich told her story in front of the U.S. Congress and in front of the Senate in order to ensure the resolution be added to VAWA before it was reauthorized, she said. Some senators and representatives believed her story and some did not, she said.
In January of 2013, Millich, along with thousands of others, lobbied in front of the Senate again.
Finally, the reauthorization bill passed through the Senate and then-President Barack Obama signed the final reauthorization in March 2013.
According to a video of the event, Millich presented her story once more at the Department of Interior in Washington D.C. on the day of the VAWA bill reauthorization signing that month.
“When Native American women are abused on tribal lands by an attacker who is not Native American, the attacker is immune to prosecution by tribal courts,” said then-President Barack Obama at the VAWA signing. “As soon as I sign this bill, that ends.”