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September 01, 2017

A Legal Perspective on Sliver of a Full Moon

by Mary Kathryn Nagle

The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013 secured a significant victory for Native women and the tribal nations that seek to protect them. In the United States today, Native women face rates of abuse, murder, and sexual assault higher than any other population in the United States. Statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Justice and tribal governments demonstrate that non-Indians commit a majority of these violent crimes. Thus, the restoration of tribal criminal jurisdiction over non- Indians is a critical sovereign right that tribal governments can exercise to ensure safety for Native women.

My play, Sliver of a Full Moon, documents this victory, including the stories of the women who made it possible.

On May 3, 2017, we staged Sliver of a Full Moon for its 16th performance in Pendleton, Oregon, with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR). Since June 2013, we have taken the play to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center’s Women Are Sacred Conference, the National Congress of the American Indians, the United States Capitol, the United Nations, Joe’s Pub at the Public in New York, Yale Law School, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Radcliffe College at Harvard University, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NYU Law School, Stanford Law School, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Yurok Tribe, and now—most recently—the CTUIR. Additionally, a mini-performance of Sliver of a Full Moon and panel discussion were provided at the American Bar Association’s Midyear Meeting in February 2017.

Sliver of a Full Moon documents the legal and jurisdictional issues raised in the wake of Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, a 1978 Supreme Court decision that stripped Indian nations of the ability to exercise their inherent criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who come onto tribal lands and commit crimes. Oliphant left Native women and children at a higher risk of domestic violence than any other group in the United States. The play then follows the bipartisan legislative battle to reauthorize VAWA in 2013 with a tribal jurisdiction provision that restored a portion of tribes’ jurisdiction to protect Native women and children from non- Indian perpetrated violence.

Sliver of a Full Moon’s cast features five courageous Native women who stepped forward to share publicly their stories of abuse by non-Indians and their efforts to counter staunch opponents to the tribal provisions: Billie Jo Rich (Eastern Band Cherokee), Diane Millich (Southern Ute Indian Tribe), Lisa Brunner (White Earth Ojibwe), Melissa Brady (Hidatsa/ Lakota/Dakota), and Nettie Warbelow (Athabaskan, from the Native village of Tetlin).

Sliver of a Full Moon is about the power of sharing our own stories. For too long, survivors have been told they must remain silent. Sliver of a Full Moon breaks that silence and works to create healing spaces in our own tribal communities where survivors are honored and supported, not ashamed and silenced.

Professional actors join the five survivors to play several others who were key in the 2013 reauthorization of VAWA, including Congressman Tom Cole, former Tulalip Tribes Vice-Chairwoman Deborah Parker, and Eastern Band Cherokee Secretary of State Terri Henry.

Sliver of a Full Moon is more important now, given the current national political climate. Although the restoration of jurisdiction in VAWA 2013 constitutes an important step forward, this victory has recently come under attack. During his recent confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, (now) Attorney General Jeff Sessions, (who voted as a senator against VAWA 2103 reauthorization) expressed doubt as to whether he would uphold the tribal jurisdiction provision of VAWA 2013. Sessions stated that he was “not able to answer” whether he would “seek to overturn [the tribal] provision of VAWA as the AG.”

And just over a year ago, in the Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians argument before the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed doubts that tribal jurisdiction over non- Indian American citizens could be “constitutional” because according to Justice Kennedy, tribes are “nonconstitutional entities . . . [because they] are not governed by the Due Process Clause.” Tr. at 42:21–25.

As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a partner at Pipestem Law Firm, I work to protect and preserve the inherent sovereignty of Indian nations to protect all of their citizens. My hope is that by hearing the stories of our survivors in Indian Country, Americans will begin to question a legal framework that prohibits tribal nations from protecting their own citizens.

In the words of survivor Lisa Brunner (White Earth Ojibwe), “The partial restoration of tribal jurisdiction in VAWA 2013 is just a sliver of the full moon we need to ensure all of our women are safe. Until all of our tribes’ jurisdiction is fully restored, no one is safe.”

For more information about Sliver of a Full Moon, please visit www.

Mary Kathryn Nagle is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a partner at Pipestem Law, a firm dedicated to the preservation and restoration of tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction. She has represented tribes and tribal citizens in state, federal, and tribal courts, and has filed numerous briefs in appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

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