Diane Millich watched Thursday as President Barack Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act,which gives tribes the right to prosecute non-Indians in abuse cases.
Millich,who now works for an organization that helps abused women,said it is the most important thing in her life since the birth of her children.
A a native Southern Ute tribeswoman,Millich was a victim of violent domestic abuse that went unprosecuted because she lives on tribal land and her attacker was a non-Indian. Throughout her ordeal,Millich lived with her non-Indian husband on the reservation in Southwestern Colorado. The Southern Ute Tribal Police under existing law lacked jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute her husband because he was white and non-tribal authorities could not prosecute acts that occurred on the reservation.
“It’s important,not only to me but other victims and those that have been silenced either by murder,addiction,suicide or are in jail,” Millich said. It’s important because their voices are now heard.”
Obama said the law brings about equality that the American people seek.
“So one of the great legacies of this law is that it didn’t just change the rules; it changed our culture,” he said. “It empowered people to start speaking out. It made it OK for us,as a society,to talk about domestic abuse.”
The law will give jurisdiction to tribal courts to sit on cases involving those who abuse women on reservations regardless of whether or not they are natives. Indian Country has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in the U.S. The lack of authority to prosecute may be one of the reasons that abuse continues.
“Well,as soon as I sign this bill that ends. That ends. That ends,” Obama said to a rousing applause and a standing ovation.
He said tribal governments have an inherent right to protect their people,and all women deserve the right to live free from fear.
The bill also extends protection for the first time to gays and lesbians,immigrants,public housing residents and college students. The 1994 law expired as Congress debated whether to add protections to new groups or to reauthorize the old law without changes.
Obama also paid glowing tribute to Vice President Joe Biden,who wrote the 1994 act.
“Because of this bill,they’ll continue to have access to all the services that Joe first helped establish 19 years ago: the national hotline,network of shelters,protection orders that carry across state lines,” he said about the vice president.
Biden said the law will remove fear from women’s lives and embolden them to report abuse.
“So when Congress passed this law that the president will sign today,they just didn’t renew what I consider a sacred commitment to protect our mothers,our daughters,our sisters. They strengthened that commitment,” he said.
Obama was surrounded by congressional leaders and women’s rights advocates as he signed the bill into law at a ceremony at the Department of Interior auditorium. Obama said he chose to sign the bill there instead of at the White House so more people involved in the cause could attend.
Millich said the new law will enable more women to come out to speak about their abuse and be free.
Reach reporter Eddie Ameh at [email protected] or 202-326-9868. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.