The experience almost didn't seem real, Diane Millich said.
Over a span of two days, the Southern Ute tribal member and founder of the nonprofit Our Sister's Keeper went from sitting at her home south of Durango to standing on stage in Washington, D.C., introducing Vice President Joe Biden at the signing of the Violence Against Women Act.
Millich was the only advocate to speak at the March 7 signing of the act that many said heralded a national shift in the response to and culture surrounding domestic and sexual violence.
“One of the great legacies of this law is it didn't just change the rules, it changed our culture. It empowered people to start speaking out,” President Barack Obama said before signing the reauthorized law. “It made it OK for us as a society to talk about domestic abuse.”
In her speech at the signing ceremony, Millich told her own story of domestic violence. Her experience is a glaring example of why tribes need the authority to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators who abuse Native American victims. Providing that authority was one of the major revisions included in the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act.
“I made a commitment that I was speaking for the silenced victim,” she said in an interview last week. “I came from victim to survivor, and I told myself I was willing to speak for them.”
So, with her knees knocking and feeling like she was going to faint, Millich took the stage.
A rocky road
The Violence Against Women Act expired in 2011 after Republicans pushed back against new provisions that would extend more protections to undocumented immigrants, Native Americans, and lesbians, gays, transgenders and bisexuals who are victims of sexual assault.
The new version of the bill passed the U.S. Senate in 2012 but died in the U.S. House of Representatives, where legislators instead passed their own VAWA bill stripped of the new provisions.
Public pressure against the gridlock mounted throughout the year, and in February, both houses passed the Senate's original, expanded version of the reauthorization.
The act's passage was an example of both parties coming together for a common cause, Obama said.
“This is the day of the advocates, the day of the survivors, this is your victory,” the president said. “This victory shows that when the American people make their voices heard, Washington listens.”
Twelve years ago, Millich was not an advocate but a victim of domestic violence. At 35 years old, she had just married her husband, who was non-Indian. Just days after they exchanged vows, her husband began beating her. She endured a year of being “slapped, kicked, punched and living in horrific terror” before she left for good. She made multiple calls for help, but tribal police couldn't arrest her husband because he was non-Indian, and the La Plata County Sheriff was powerless because Millich was a tribal member and the abuse was happening on the reservation.
Her husband finally was arrested after he went with a gun to where Millich worked. He fired the gun, and Millich's co-worker pushed her aside, taking the bullet in his shoulder. Her ex-husband's plea agreement carried a minimal sentence because he had no prior offense record, Millich said.
“If the bill being signed today was a law when I was married, it would have allowed my tribe to arrest and prosecute my abuser,” Millich said.
On a national level, Millich was a member of a National Congress of the American Indians task force focused on the tribal provisions of the Violence Against Women Act. Most of her work, however, has focused on addressing sexual and domestic violence at a local level. She founded Our Sister's Keeper in 2005 after realizing the need for an organization that worked across tribal and county boundaries. The organization provides victim advocacy, outreach, education and prevention programs relating to sexual and domestic abuse, especially for tribal members.
The bulk of Our Sister's Keeper's funding comes from private donations and money allocated under the Violence Against Women Act, Millich said.
The act and its associated funding stream have played a big role in other local organizations' work to combat domestic and sexual violence as well.
Federal funding under the act accounted for about one-third of the budget for Alternative Horizons in 2012, said Kim Zook, the nonprofit's executive director. The organization provides support for domestic violence survivors and their families.
Alternative Horizons was one of five regional organizations that received a three-year $800,000 grant, which came from funding under the Violence Against Women Act. The grant, which was dedicated to combating rural domestic violence, expired in October but the organizations are applying to receive the same funding next year.
Durango's Sexual Assault Services Organization was another of the grant's recipients.
The money helped the organization to expand advocacy services, especially to the Latino community, SASO Executive Director Maura Doherty Demko said.
Though many local organizations said their services have always been equally available to members of the LGBT community, immigrants and tribal members, the law's new provisions carry symbolic importance, Demko said.
“This just broadens our awareness that it's not just about one person, one gender or one culture. (Domestic and sexual violence) happens across the board, and it has been used as a tool of oppression for a long time,” she said. “VAWA is realizing more supports for Native American women, for the LGBTQ community and the Hispanic community. These are key parts of our country and we need to pay attention to that.”