Signing of the Violence Against Women Act, a hope realized

A few months ago, proir to the signing of the Violence Against Women Act being signed into law, Lisa Dellinger shared a story with women at a United Methodist Women’s regional conference regarding the plight of native American women, and the unheard of violence that is being suffered by them.

Dellinger, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, one of over 500 Federally recognized Nations in the U.S., whose people came on the Trail of Tears to settle in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, is presently a PhD student in theology and ethics.

Dellinger told the story how she recognition that she has  “a killable self; that I could be killed simply for being female and Native and poor and little would change because of my death;”  and that realization has become a passion.

She said in April of 1976 when she was only five years old, she heard a story on television of the discovery of a dismembered body of a woman, found in an abandoned building.  Over the next few weeks, police and reporters asked for more information from the public. “I now know she was believed to be an “Indian prostitute.”

Seven years later, in 1986, another young, Native American female prostitute was reported murdered by the same killer. Again, cast off pieces of her body were found. Eventually, identified by the tattoos on her skin. The question of the name of the first victim would not be resolved until 1993 with DNA testing. The women were mentioned incidentally but the majority of attention focused on the question of the unknown identity of the killer. The women were known as only poor, Native American prostitutes. They were randomly strewn body parts and pieces.  “At the time of the third murder, I was fifteen years old. To this day, there have been no answers or resolutions. The names of the women are: Cathy Lyn Shackleford, Arley Bell Killian, and Tina Saunders,” she said.

“The appalling nature of the killings was not something I really could process as a child but as I grew older the specificity of the murders’ details held for me more than a personal sense of my own vulnerability. The atrocities done to Cathy Lyn Shackelford, Arley Bell Killian, and Tina Saunders are deeply personal and yet are also embodied in the historic narratives of conquest,” said Dellinger. “I have never lost the feeling that despite our differences these women’s bodies are like and could still be my body.

“The reality (that these women) had thoughts, dreams, hopes, fears, families, and friends are at best faint or at worse erased. Cathy, Arley, and Tina haunt me in my flesh and bone because, paradoxically, their reduced and distorted stories are and might-yet-become my own. The evil of violence here is its ongoing mutilating presence which robs these women of their distinctive personhood and spiritual being,” she said.

The way the law is written the Justice Department is responsible for prosecuting the serious crimes that take place on the Reservations or Tribal Nations’ land. However, the Justice department only filed charges in half of the murder investigations and declines to take two thirds of the sexual assault cases.  The Indigenous Nations are only allowed to prosecute tribal members for crimes and non-Native persons are to be tried by the federal Government.

She shared that as it stands, non-Native men are virtually immune for their crimes as the government did not pursue rape charges on reservations 65% of the time in 2001.

The government also rejected 61% of the cases involving charges of sexual abuse of children.  Many of the Native communities never get notification of or reasons for these cases being declined. Notification is also sometimes withheld along with collected evidence until after the statute of limitations expired.  It is important to understand Non-Native men attack 86% of the Native women who experience rape. Native women experience rape or attempted rape at more than twice the national average. Amnesty International states that 6 in 10 Native women are physically assaulted and the murder rate is ten times the national average. It is well known that the Violence Against Women Act contained provisions to address the lack of justice in cases involving the violation of Native Women by Non-Native men.

Ms. Dellingers deepest hope were realized that “we are not allowed to ignore the dangers that Native women continue to face with little or no recourse.”  On March 11, 2013 the VAWA was signed into law by President Obama.

Dellinger said, “The haunting of these women is transformative, powerful because they are re/embodied through the act of re/membering and our insisting on the fact of their particular imago Dei. In re/membering and insisting on that image of God in our sisters, we must also look at how to end this cycle of sin and bring about God’s Spirit of healing, life, and justice for those who live and might yet die nameless in the un-interrupted, and un-repentant status quo.

“Remember: We are connected. You are flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. Where you go, I will go. We are one in God, through  the grace of Jesus the Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit,” said Lisa Dellinger.